Fanatical attitudes towards work and productivity dominate our culture, but for many the pandemic lockdowns have revealed the value of working less and living more
We must get the people ‘back to work’, declared multiple governments at the end of the first pandemic lockdowns, and who could disagree with them? Shouldn’t everybody return to work when the pandemic is over? Of course, provided the conditions are safe, our economies need us, and we need work, right? Whether socialist or capitalist, Labour or Conservative, Democrat or Republican, everybody is eager to valorise work and, most importantly, ‘working people’. Noble are the ‘strivers’ and ‘grafters’ eager to work at any cost, and courageous (if not misled) were the protesters across the US demanding the right to return to work in the face of a deadly pandemic. In our contemporary culture, liberty itself is tethered to our right to work, and if you take away that right, then you take away our liberty. Thus is our modern religious belief in the sanctity of work, or what some analysts have called ‘workism’. It is a religion that inculcates us with a fanatical desire to work harder, better and for longer.
But what about the people who don’t want to work, or, rather, the people who want to work less? Brave is the person who publicly and proudly declares such a position. Braver still is the person who declares that they enjoy slacking or being lazy. In a society so besotted with work, being work-shy becomes all the more heretical. But why should we accept this logic? Is a desire to work less not borne of a belief in the value of things other than work? And is such a belief not virtuous in itself? Conversely, might we not take pity on the frantic workaholics, many of them young people, who burn themselves out in pursuit of their ends? As the saying goes, ‘no one ever dies wishing they’d spent more time at the office’.
The Right to Be Lazy
‘A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work’. So reads the introduction of Bertrand Russell’s impassioned 1935 essay In Praise of Idleness, in which he advocates for the reduction of work and increase in leisure time. Why? So that people can ‘derive whatever happiness they may enjoy from it. Half a century earlier, Paul Lafargue, son-in-law of Karl Marx, penned a more radical polemic against work entitled The Right To Be Lazy. In it he argued that a delusional, ‘furious passion’ for work was the cause of ‘all intellectual degeneracy in society, enslaving people to their wage and deforming the organic human experience. ‘O Laziness’, he declared, ‘be thou the balm of human anguish!’
Long is the tradition of such anti-work literature and sentiment, and contrary to many assumptions, it is not just the ramblings of left-wing idealists and couch potatoes. Advocacy for less toil has existed across the spectrum and amassed many proponents over the centuries. It can be found in the pre-Marxian writings of Sir Thomas More, Charles Fourier and William Morris, who, each in their differing ways, hoped that technological advancements in production would eventually lead to less time spent toiling and more time spent living. Such was John Maynard Keynes’ oft-cited projection in the 1930s. Writing in his essay on the Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren, he predicted that by 2030 we might all be working just fifteen hours per week (if only!).
So what happened to such predictions? Moreover, whatever happened to the entirely legitimate desire to work less? In his seminal 1905 study, The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism, German sociologist Max Weber argued that pre-industrial workers saw work more as a means rather than an end. A worker, he wrote, would rather ‘live as he is accustomed to living and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose. Contrast this with our contemporary worship of work — where the slightest expression of a desire not to work is deemed akin to blasphemy — and Weber’s theory of the ‘protestant work ethic’ seems just as relevant today. Work, as the Italian philosopher Federico Campagna has argued, is the ‘new, true faith’, demanding our devotion not to the spiritually divine or sublime, but to the mundanity and banality of a ‘top salary’ and ‘career success’.
The New Gospel and its Acolytes
“The morality of work is the morality of slaves, wrote Russell, ‘and the modern world has no need of slavery”. Yet everywhere in our modern world is it seemingly taken as gospel that we should be striving to work harder, better and for longer; in the contemporary vernacular, we must strive to be more ‘productive’ (lest anybody strive to be unproductive or, worse, counterproductive!). On our wearied morning commutes we are bombarded by adverts for performance-enhancing supplements — vitamins, energy bars and glucose drinks — that promise to keep us alert and working harder for longer. Our social feeds are awash with sports stars, celebrities, and influencers extolling the virtues of a solid ‘work ethic’. Whether it’s pumping weights in the gym or clocking up kilometers on our running apps, we must forever be ‘grinding’, ‘hustling’, and ‘winning’. It seems that even when we’re not at work we are now made to think about work.
There is indeed a depressing irony to the fact that much of our spare time is now spent reading books, taking courses, and watching motivational talks on how to be better workers. The all-pervasive, billion-dollar productivity industry has been drip-feeding us this dogma for decades, supplying us with an endless litany of self-help literature and apps designed to show us how to ‘get more done’. In a remarkable slight of hand, activities that were once a means of escaping work are now repackaged and sold back to us as tools for boosting our productivity and work-rates: holidaying, procrastinating, drug-taking, exercising, listening to music, vegging out, laughing, crying, meditating and, of course, yoga have all been re-appropriated for such purposes.
Key to the crusade of this new religion has been the rise of the cultish self-help and management gurus. In their seminal 1999 book The New Spirit of Capitalism, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello categorised these Messiah-like missionaries – who proselytise techniques for organisation, self-betterment, and personal growth in relation to our working lives – among the chief peddlers of the piety. Every year, thousands of young and impressionable (and often vulnerable) disciples flock to worship these charismatic clerics at sold-out seminars, while bosses and corporate overlords pay extraordinary fees to have them preach to their workforces.
More recently, an entire subculture of mini-Messiahs (‘mentors’, ‘motivators’ and ‘influencers’) have emerged on platforms like Instagram. These latter-day evangelists preach to ambitious young followers – wide-eyed business school grads, corporate interns, would-be entrepreneurs, suits, and social climbers – who chant their do more mantras and bash their work better books like bibles. Their distinct neoliberal rhetoric — ‘hard work’, ‘self-belief’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ — has become so diffuse and naturalised throughout our working cultures that, to rephrase Fredric Jameson’s famous quip: it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of work.
Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods!
What is perhaps most insulting about this religion is that, like all religions, it encourages — in fact, it requires — us to be happy about its domination over us. Like slaves who are taught to love their chains, we must learn to fend off potential unhappiness about our work. To be an unhappy or depressed worker, observes William Davies in his 2015 book The Happiness Industry, is to be an unproductive worker. Thus, the merits of positive psychology, wellness, mindfulness, eating well, stress-busting and meditation techniques are not just pushed on us because they help us get happy; they’re pushed on us because they serve the convenient role of keeping us healthy and primed for work (did the slave master not have a vested interest in keeping his slaves healthy and happy?).
If things weren’t bad enough, our ability to escape this sacred world of work is fast becoming impossible. Like subjects of an all-seeing and all-knowing deity, we are constantly being judged and punished for noncompliance with the doctrine. In what has become a Taylorist’s fantasy (or an Orwellian nightmare, depending on your perspective), our workplaces are increasingly governed by surveillance regimes of performance measurement, assessment, and evaluation. Our activities are intrusively monitored and our personalities periodically analysed in order to quantify our commitment to the faith. In Foucauldian terms, this creates a self-governing logic that disciplines us; it forces us to alter our natural states and behaviours to be more obedient, more ‘efficient’ workers. Those who fail to comply or adequately perform must enact ritual penance before the boss or, worse, suffer the shame and humiliation of a pay cut or dismissal.
Furthermore, we are increasingly subjected to this kind of tyrannical logic outside of the workplace. The digital labour and ‘microwork’ we perform on the web (clicks, posts, follows, likes, and so on) doesn’t just generate huge profits for big tech from the free data we produce for them (yes, we’re all working for Google and Facebook for free), it also exposes us to constant public scrutiny and peer assessment. As our work/life boundaries continue to blur, our social lives, both online and offline, reflect evermore labourious workspaces where we must perpetually maintain a positive and often inauthentic ‘brand image’ of ourselves — posting the right photos, liking the correct posts and following the appropriate people. In essence, our lives become governed by our perceptions of other people’s perceptions of us to the extent that we become our very own 24/7 public relations managers. Our compulsion to be connected and active in this way is propelling more and more of us into states of physical and psychological exhaustion, a strictly modern malaise that the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg described as a ‘weariness of the self’.
What this all represents is the ongoing expansion of work into every corner of our lives — the wholesale neoliberalisation of the self — where we must always be working and always be seen to be working, and if we refuse to comply then, in the eyes of the devout, we are but shirkers, sluggards, and skivers. It’s a world where what we do, how hard we do it, how long for and how much we earn from it comes to define us; where we see work not only as infallible, but our subjugation to it essential and even desirable. ‘Slavery degrades man to the point that he begins to love his chains’, said the Marquis de Vauvenargues. Yet today, conspicuous and often boastful displays of workaholism — ‘I’m so tired’, ‘I’ve not stopped all week’ and ‘work is killing me’ — permeate our social discourse, as if those who work their asses off truly believe their excessive toil will deliver them to the Promised Land.
Apostasy & Lockdowns: The Value of Working Less
In his 2013 book The Last Night: Anti-Work, Atheism, Adventure, Frederico Campagna argued that as long as we remain in submission to the religion of work we are, quite literally, wasting our time. The reason is simple: while we are reimbursed monetarily for the work we do, we can never truly be reimbursed, because for this to happen we would also have to be paid in time — that is, all the time we’ve ever spent working. Of course, this is impossible, and as Campagna poetically asserts, waged workers are therefore ‘endlessly sailing towards a receding horizon, while their ship is sinking under the burden of a ton of worthless credit notes’. His solution? We should pursue a ‘truly radical atheism’, one that values time (actual free time), adventure and autonomy beyond the tyranny of our work.
Many workers caught a sense of this ‘radical atheism’ during the 2020 lockdowns. While some discovered they could skip church (i.e. the office) and do most of their worshipping from home, others realised they could do it for significantly fewer hours and be just as, if not more, productive. Many were also awakened to the somewhat depressing reality that their jobs aren’t actually essential, but, instead, unnecessary — or, as the late anthropologist David Graeber so eloquently put it, ‘bullshit jobs’.
But what many workers collectively experienced was an extended period of genuinely free time — that is, time to do things not for the necessity of a wage or by external command, but because they had an intrinsic desire to do them: decorate the house, maintain the garden, adopt a pet, take long walks, spend time with the kids, read, and/or take up a creative hobby. While some understandably found the experience isolating and difficult, many, as we now know, paradoxically expressed an upsurge in meaningful connectivity with family, friends, neighbours and nature. Unsurprisingly, spending less time working affords us all more time to engage with the people and things that really matter to us, and to embrace the positive state that psychologists call ‘flow’.
It is this ability to flow – to possess autonomy over one’s time and be unburdened by the necessity of ‘work’ – that is paramount to human liberty, development and wellbeing. Eastern traditional philosophy (in particular the practice of meditative spirituality) has a deep and profound understanding of this concept, unlike much of the western canon. However, there are Western thinkers who have recognised it over the years, albeit tangentially. Marx recognised it, for example, when he wrote that ‘the realm of freedom does not commence until the point is passed where labor under the compulsion of necessity and external utility is required’. Adam Smith also understood it when he acknowledged how a ‘man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations […] has no occasion to exert his understanding […] He generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become’.
To work less and live more is, as many have learned from the pandemic lockdowns, essential to leading a more healthy and fulfilled life. Indeed, there is now even a growing body of scientific literature to back this up. In his 2013 book Autopilot: The Art & Science of Doing Nothing, scientist and engineer Andrew Smart draws on neuroscience research to argue that working less and doing nothing — literally nothing — can actually make our brain function better. As he puts it, in our ‘hysterical rush to make money, gain status, compete for scarce jobs, jockey for promotions, make our kids athletic and intellectual geniuses, and organize our lives down to the second, we are suppressing our brain’s natural ability to make meaning out of experience’. A ‘sharp increase in idleness, absenteeism, laziness, and non-industriousness’, he writes, might be just what we need to ‘bring about positive social and political change’.
Similarly, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen draws from his experience as a psychiatrist to argue much the same point. In his recent book Not Working: Why We Have To Stop (2020), he describes how many of his patients are ‘plagued by stress, enervation and fatigue’, and how their problems are often ‘compounded by a sense of unfulfilment and meaninglessness, of work as not only arduous but empty, bereft of guiding purpose beyond its simply being there to do’. Doing nothing more often, he argues, can spur much imaginative freedom and creativity, which could not only help us discover who we are and what we want to be but also lead us to a purer sense of self-worth and fulfilment.
We Need to Stop Working!
As the world prepares for post-pandemic life, there has perhaps been no greater time in recent history to discuss the merits of working less, along with all of the wonderful ways it could be encouraged and facilitated via policy. Among the most interesting proposals have been shorter working weeks and Universal Basic Income (UBI). Both policies have popular support and lots of research indicating their efficacy. Yet, despite strong advocacy from a range of think-tanks, academics and policy wonks, they have been met with relative silence from our governments who seem hopelessly committed to hurrying us back to a pre-pandemic state of ‘normal’ – or, at least, ‘as close to normal as possible’, as the UK government has put it.
Of course, little progress is likely to come from this, since it would mean forcing many people to forget that the 2020 pandemic did not so much induce feelings of misery in them so much as it awoke them to just how miserable and unfulfilled their working lives already were. For many, returning life to ‘normal’ would be like covering up an infected wound and pretending it’s not there.
Yet, quite apart from the benefits to our physical and mental health, there is another, far more important reason for us to reduce the amount of time we spend working. As the celebrated anthropologist and critic of unnecessary work David Graeber pointed out before his untimely death in 2020: all the carbon we’re pouring into the atmosphere from unnecessary work and over-productivity is destroying the planet and its biosphere.
The issue was highlighted during the first pandemic lockdowns, when, as a result of the global ‘anthropause’, the planet experienced a remarkable reduction in air and water pollution, along with a return of wildlife to areas it had previously abandoned. If Mother Nature was trying to send us a message, then it could hardly have been clearer.
If we don’t renounce our ‘puritanical’ worship of work and over-productivity, Graeber warned, then we will be leaving our children and grandchildren to face ‘catastrophes on a scale which will make the current pandemic seem trivial’. ‘To save the world’, he concluded, ‘we’re going to have to stop working’.
Amen to that.
Dedicated to the memory of David Graeber.