Over Christmas I re-read Bertrand Russell’s wonderful essay, In Praise of Idleness. Its message is still incisive and revolutionary, if in slightly different ways.
In Russel’s day, elites jealously guarded leisure for themselves while proclaiming the dignity and virtue of work for others. Today, the leisure class has committed suicide, and both rich and poor are slaves to “the virtue of hard work as an end in itself, rather than as a means to a state of affairs in which it is no longer needed.” Often, it is no longer enough to simply perform the routines of work. Work must now reflect some core part of your identity; be passion in action. For those elites lucky enough to work in creative fields, the incongruity might be limited. For most, the demand that manual, menial, and repetitive tasks be described as anything other than means to ends is a cruel joke.
In other ways the essay is very familiar. It is still an implicit article of faith for many that poverty or stultifying labour are necessary parts of the social order. Many of the highly-paid members of the managerial class, who divide their weekends between the couch and the pub, do not hesitate to prescribe sobriety and discipline for others.
The most affirming and revolutionary part of the essay comes in its claim that there is no necessary relation between the positive moral qualities society needs and work:
Finally, passages like this alone make the essay worth reading:
For a similar sentiment see also “Economic possibilities for our grandchildren” by Russell’s good friend John Maynard Keynes.
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