“The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.”
― Bertrand Russell
In 1932, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell penned a poignant and paradigm-challenging essay titled “In Praise of Idleness.” In it, Russell critiqued an idea that has always been, like, fundamental to the organization of Western civilization—namely, the idea that work is inherently virtuous and an end in itself.
Russell was basically like, “Nah, wage labor is pretty cool sometimes, but leisure is awesome too and produces great things. We have the technology and infrastructure to greatly reduce the forced workload of the average human, and that should be our goal—to liberate people from excessive work so that they can freely pursue the things that bring them intrinsic joy and happiness.”
It’s hard to overstate the extent to which this was and still is a radical idea—one which many would deem preposterous. Decades of diligent ~40-hour work-weeks are still considered by many to be indispensable to a successful, upstanding life. Hard-working people are perceived as making the world go round, while idle people or people engaged in ostensibly non-pragmatic affairs are considered lazy leeches on the system.
In “In Praise of Idleness,” Bertrand Russell complicates this reductive conception of work by analyzing the essence of what work is, why we do it, and how we might think differently about it. Let’s take a closer look at Russell’s argument.
Early on in “In Praise of Idleness,” Russell declares what might be seen as the thesis statement of the essay:
“I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
After this early mission statement, Russell delves into the task of defining work:
“First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.
[. . .]
Throughout Europe, though not in America, there is a third class of men, more respected than either of the classes of workers. There are men who, through ownership of land, are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work. These landowners are idle, and I might therefore be expected to praise them. Unfortunately, their idleness is only rendered possible by the industry of others; indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the whole gospel of work.“
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So, Russell says, there are two kinds of work: the first—and the one in which the majority of people engage—involves rearranging matter in some fashion, toward some desired end. Even today, in an era in which many people’s jobs involve sitting all day in front of a computer, this definition remains relevant, as digital labor nonetheless involves rearranging bits of data which are accompanied by physical impressions on a hard drive.
The second kind of work—a more enjoyable and higher paid variety—involves telling other people what matter to rearrange and how to do so. A third class of men, Russell says, don’t work, but rather own the land on which others labor and charge them for the right to exist and work there. Russell was speaking of the remnants of the system of feudalism once prevalent in Europe, but his description of landowners bears a close resemblance to today’s mega-wealthy global elite—the top ~1-2% of the world’s rich who tend to own land/enterprises/resources and passively to collect outrageous profits, having no need to work themselves, if they don’t want to.
The History of Work
After this brief definition, Russell moves on to consider the history of work in Western civilization:
“From the beginning of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard as he did, and his children added their labor as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by warriors and priests. . . . A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men’s thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system, and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.
It is obvious that, in primitive communities, peasants, left to themselves, would not have parted with the slender surplus upon which the warriors and priests subsisted, but would have either produced less or consumed more. At first, sheer force compelled them to produce and part with the surplus. Gradually, however, it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to support others in idleness. By this means the amount of compulsion required was lessened, and the expenses of government were diminished. To this day, 99 per cent of British wage-earners would be genuinely shocked if it were proposed that the King should not have a larger income than a working man. The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.“
That was a long passage, but I promise it’s important, so let’s unpack it a bit. Throughout most of the history of civilization, Russell says, people had to work damn hard just to secure the basic necessities of life. They might produce a small surplus (which would then be snatched from them by the upper classes), but for the most part, they busted their asses to cultivate the land and to produce the resources necessary for survival.
At first, this labor was simply an imperative for survival, but over time, the ruling classes conditioned the working classes to see their work as something desirable—an ethical and noble duty. In the West, Judeo-Christian values of industry and hard work were emphasized/propagated by the ruling classes, conveniently convincing the masses that work was inherently good—a way to humble oneself before the Lord and secure one’s place in Heaven.
This is perhaps one of the most elaborate deceptions in history—this conditioning of the masses to want to work tirelessly in order to survive, all the while padding the pockets of a small group of elite. The very “conception of duty,” as Russell points out, has served as something of a coercive psychoactive substance which the wealthy deploy to “induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.”
Finally, note Russell’s point that the pre-modern system of labor was around for so long that it has of course “naturally left a profound impress upon men’s thoughts and opinions.” The system might be dead, but the values that it fostered and the ideas that were used to justify it are still very much alive. So, basically, an enormous workload for the average person is no longer necessary, but we still believe that it is, because of cultural momentum.
The Case Study of World War I
“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war.”
Russell goes on to claim that World War I is something of a case study demonstrating that the amount of labor necessary to secure life’s necessities for the masses has dramatically decreased in the modern world.
“At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since.”
So Russell is like, “Wait, wait, wait . . . just look at what happened during WWI. Vast segments of people were occupied by war-related work and were doing nothing in service of producing the actual necessities of life. And yet, the average dud(ette) on the Allies’ team was actually better off than any time before or since. Doesn’t this, like, prove that we now live in a world in which a relatively minuscule portion of mankind’s collective time/energy can supply the necessities for all of mankind?”
Why, yes, Bertrand, that would seem to be the case. But what happened post-WWI?
“. . . the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.”
Russell explains that after the war, the majority of people went back to working eight hours each day, and (as is always the case) a sizable percentage of people unable to find work were left unemployed, forgotten, starving. Russell proposes that the post-WWI workday could reasonably have been reduced to four hours, and that this would have allowed everyone to work, while still supplying the necessities of life for all and greatly reducing the collective amount of time/energy expended.
Why would this work? Because, as the war demonstrated, technological progress had made it possible for the same amount of resources to be produced with far less human effort. But, unfortunately, the system did/does not pay people in proportion to what is ultimately produced, but “in proportion to [their] virtue as exemplified by [their] industry.” That long-entrenched tyrant called Duty dictated that people ought to continue to work long hours for low wages, and only a handful of intellectuals grasped that exponentially greater efficiency via machine-automation ought to benefit the common man accordingly. Russell offers an anecdote to illustrate how ludicrous the system was/is, given the potential of machines to replace labor:
“Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”
As machines continued to replace human labor during the Industrial Revolution, mankind halved the work-week, increased minimum wages accordingly, and devised innovative means of wealth re-distribution to ensure that the people of the world would benefit collectively from the advancements of a new technological age.
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Of course that’s not what happened. At least not for the most part. When one adjusts for inflation, the minimum wage in the US actually peaked in 1968 and has barely doubled in ~80 years, despite the fact that machines have made us exponentially more productive.
Have we really become that much more productive, though? Good question. Consider this: in 1880, 49% of the Americans were farmers. Today, 2% of Americans are farmers. Other examples could be listed, but I think this one is sufficient to demonstrate just how much manpower has been replaced by machines. And yet, the day-to-day life of the average Westerner doesn’t really reflect these changes.
Instead of saying, “Wow, hey, these machines are doing a lot of the work for us now. No one should have to work as much!,” we said, “We need to create more jobs!” Instead of re-distributing the outrageous sums of wealth being amassed in ever-more efficient, machine-supplemented industries, we allowed a tiny segment of mega-wealthy people to become way wealthier.
And thus was the genesis of our present-day situation, in which the wealthiest 1% of the global community will soon control over half of the world’s wealth and in which the average person works a job that is utterly disconnected from the basic realities of life. Huge portions of humanity spend their days balancing someone else’s checkbook, or trying to sell people shit that they don’t need, or trying to come up with more effective ways to manipulate people into valuing their “brand,” or moving boxes around on a digital screen to make the display more aesthetically pleasing, or talking on the phone with people who are dissatisfied with a product that they didn’t need in the first place, etc. etc. etc. I realize that today’s situation differs dramatically from those of previous eras and that therefore some of these sorts of jobs are necessary, but it seems that to some extent we’ve simply conjured up countless superfluous societal roles in an effort to allow everyone to “do his duty.”
We constantly invent jobs and industries in an effort to reduce unemployment instead of recognizing that we long ago reached a point after which far fewer people actually need to work, and for far fewer hours each week. And now, in the 21st century, we are moving into an era in which artificial intelligence will replace even more human labor, physical as well as intellectual. Unemployment will increase, and we will be forced to try to manufacture new, frivolous “jobs” for the average human, a practice which is presumably untenable in the long-term. The alternative, of course, is to finally recognize the beautiful possibility of a shorter work-week, much higher wages, and something like a Universal Basic Income. For decades, such initiatives have, despite much resistance, been gaining traction and mainstream approval, though in most places their implementation remains to be seen.
The Benefits of Leisure Time
“A man who has worked long hours all his life will become bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.”
What would people do with significantly more leisure time? I think Russell is correct in suggesting that someone who has worked long hours all his life would likely be restless or discontented if suddenly he/she no longer needed to work. This is why so many people continue to work post-retirement—force of habit. However, Russell contends that a considerable amount of leisure is necessary to enjoy “many of the best things” in life.
Many of us still seem to think that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”—that giving many people the opportunity to work far fewer hours would lead to all sorts of delinquency and debauchery and “sin.” Russell rejects this idea and offers a radically different one—i.e. the idea that leisure time gives people the chance to explore life and discover its hidden groove-pearls. He writes:
“The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare. . .
It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.”
Russell suggests that a “cult of efficiency” in the modern world has deteriorated our capacity for light-heartedness and play, implying that we would be wise to re-kindle the ability to indulge in simple delights and whimsical activity for no reason other than the joy which they provide. He argues that the modern man has lost touch with such intrinsically enjoyable, meaningful activities, focusing only on activities that will further some external agenda—accumulating more money, impressing other people, completing some imaginary “success” checklist, etc.
Russell goes on to assert that more leisure time ultimately frees people up to pursue the things that really matter to them, and that such pursuits have historically resulted in much of what we think of as civilization—science, art, philosophy, etc. He concludes the essay by imagining a world in which no one is forced to work more than four hours each day:
“In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.
Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”
Though admittedly somewhat idealistic, Russell paints a vivid and compelling picture of how the world could change if we relinquish our outmoded allegiance to Duty, share our resources more effectively, and return to people the time and energy expended unnecessarily each week.
Leisure time creates the space necessary for imagination, inquiry, aesthetic contemplation, introspection, and the pursuit of that which one finds most exciting and reward. When people are given that space and the opportunities it affords, there’s no telling what unrealized potentialities might blossom.
On a societal level, we can push for the sorts of political changes that would allow Russell’s vision to manifest. On an individual level, we can prioritize space, idleness, and rest, recognizing that life can be more than a bustling, bustling, bustling from one item on a to-do list to the next. If we’re able to do this—to expand and live deeply our leisurely hours—we might find that pausing to breathe, daydream, gaze, wander, and do whatever comes naturally isn’t just something for lazy people, but an integral aspect of a rich and meaningful human life.
If this was fascinating, I encourage you to read Russell’s essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” in full. It’s available online here.