Notes from ‘Summary of Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness”’
Note: The following are excerpts from the article named ‘Summary of Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness”’ from the Reason and Meaning blog.
Russell saw that 1930s technology was already making more leisure time possible. (This is even more true with 21st-century technology.) Yet society had not changed in the sense that it was still a place where some work long hours, while others are unemployed. This is what he called “the morality of the Slave State …” He illustrates with a thought experiment. Suppose that a plant manufactures employs a certain number of people who work 8 hours a day and produce all the pins the world needs. Now suppose that an invention allows the same number of people to make twice as many pins.
‘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?’
The key philosophical idea for Russell is that physical labor, while sometimes necessary, is not the purpose of life. Why then do we so value work? First, because the rich preach that work is dignified in order to keep the workers content. Second, because we take a certain delight in how technology transforms the world. But the typical worker doesn’t think that physical or monotonous labor is meaningful. Rather “they consider work, as it should be considered, a necessary means to a livelihood, and it is from their leisure that they derive whatever happiness they may enjoy.”
Some object that people wouldn’t know what to do with more leisure time, but if this is true Russell thinks it “a condemnation of our civilization.” For why must everything be done for the sake of something else? What is wrong with deriving intrinsic pleasure from simply playing? It is tragic that we don’t value enjoyment, happiness, and pleasure as we should. Still, Russell argues that leisure time isn’t best spent on frivolity; leisure time should be used intelligently. By this, he doesn’t just mean highbrow intellectual activities, although he does favor active over passive activities as good uses of leisure time. He also believes that the preference of many people for passive rather than active pursuits reflects the fact that they are exhausted from too much work. Provide more time to enjoy life, and people will learn to enjoy it.
Consider how some of the idle rich has spent their time. Historically, Russell says, the small leisure class has enjoyed unjust advantages, and they have oppressed others. Yet that leisure class
‘… contributed nearly the whole of what we call civilization. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism. The method of a leisure class without duties was, however, extraordinarily wasteful … and the class as a whole was not exceptionally intelligent. The class might produce one Darwin, but against him had to be set tens of thousands of country gentlemen who never thought of anything more intelligent than fox-hunting and punishing poachers.’
Instead Russell advocates for a world where no one is compelled to work more, but allowed to indulge their scientific, aesthetic, or literary tastes, or their interest in law, medicine, government, or any other interest. What will be the result of all this? Russell answers this question with his quintessentially beautiful prose:
‘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 percent 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.’
My own thoughts:
I am not qualified to give mature comments on the topic of work hours. But it has always been my belief that our work hours should decrease as our productivity as a species increase. Our work hours staying at the same level seems to be an anomaly to me. I postulate that the cause for this anomaly is precisely, as Russell points out, a culture that seems to disvalue simple pleasure and glorifies work for its own sake.
Perhaps our consumerist culture is deeply tied with this culture of labor glorification. On the one hand, manipulation from marketing creates demand that didn’t exist before. (I write this as I drink hand-filtered single-origin coffee that I am convinced to be superior to instant coffee, although I highly doubt that this preference would exist if I was exposed to coffee for the first time) On the other hand, labor that has become redundant needs to find new jobs to do. Some of them then go on to provide services that no one knows they wanted. One example is streamers. Is streaming a bullshit job? I’m not sure. I suppose the test would be whether streaming makes the audience happier than they otherwise would have been. I’m not sure if this is true. After all, we have plenty of alternative forms of entertainment. Do people watch streamers because they know they will enjoy doing so more than any alternative activity? Or is it merely out of habit or convenience? (searching for new forms of entertainment poses an upfront cost and a risk)
What about wages? Aren’t wages too low for a comfortable life if we only worked 4 hours a day? Again, I’m not sure. Wages need not be so low. After all, we produce plenty of surplus enough to feed all the idle rich, enough for the CEOs to be payed hundreds of times more than a regular employee. If law suddenly requires a 4 hour work day, then labor supply would drop and price should rise. But this is an empirical question and I can only postulate.