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Farewell to the Working Class | The Nation

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Farewell to the Working Class

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In 1883 Karl Marx's son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, was idling in a relatively luxurious political prison near the Latin Quarter of Paris. A Cuban-French socialist, he whiled away the days taking long lunches and discussing the evils of capitalism with his comrade and collaborator Jules Guesde, who happened to be staying in the next room. Lafargue's other prison pastimes included relaxing in the bathtub that had been delivered to his quarters (at Friedrich Engels's expense), practicing his German and, like any good nineteenth-century intellectual, revising his treatise--a pamphlet titled The Right to Be Lazy. Like most of his contemporary activists, he condemned the twelve-to-fourteen-hour factory workday, but unlike his father-in-law, he didn't just critique the conditions of labor--he went after labor itself. "In capitalist society," he wrote, "work is the cause of all intellectual degeneracy, of all organic deformity." Lafargue dismissed the "right to work" that other socialists demanded. He asked, instead, for the right to lie around on the daybed, the right to read and to nap, the right to feast and to make love. He declared the right to endless leisure.

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Austin Kelley
Austin Kelley, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, recently earned a doctorate in English literature from Duke...

In the past few years, Lafargue's philosophy has been vigorously renewed by writers on the other side of the Atlantic. Celebrations of leisure like Carl Honoré's In Praise of Slowness, John de Graaf's Take Back Your Time and Pat Kane's The Play Ethic have suggested that in the industrialized West we need a less hectic, more deliberate working life. In the past year two new guides to the lazy life, Tom Hodgkinson's How to Be Idle and Corinne Maier's Bonjour Laziness: Jumping Off the Corporate Ladder, have gone further, calling for a regime of revolutionary leisure in which the workforce stops being... well, a workforce. There is truly much ado about nothing here, and one must ask, Why are all these writers suddenly dedicating so much energy to indolence? Is it simply a reaction to the emerging EU and its official drive to compete with America and Asia? Or could laziness really be the key to peace, happiness and a more perfect world?

There is a substantial history of anti-work writing to draw on. Aristotle, for one, was no great fan of toil. In his Politics, he made it clear that ideal citizens should not be tradesmen, mechanics or farmers. "Such a life is ignoble, and inimical to virtue," he wrote. Instead, we must have plenty of free time and the independence to engage in social activity of our choosing. "The first principle of all action," Aristotle concluded, "is leisure." Others agreed. Cicero announced that "repose is an essential condition of happiness." Horace asked plaintively, "Why do we strive so hard in our brief lives for great possessions?"

By the time Lafargue was lounging, brandy snifter in hand, in the Sainte-Pélagie prison, the notion of striving had undergone a great shift. The elite leisure class still quoted Aristotle, thinking laziness a virtue; the Romantics and transcendentalists, meanwhile, wandered in the woods, complaining about the commerce that was tying everyone up. But the Reformation's infamous Protestant exhaustion ethic and the Industrial Revolution had altered our ideas about productivity and idleness in countless ways. Fleeing from the bustle of the busy life was a privilege of the rich, a marginal pursuit of the avant-garde or a brief, often arduous, vacation squeezed between long periods of respectable toil. For the working masses, it was forbidden fruit.

Lafargue, who was laid off by an insurance company and survived on Engels's largesse, wanted to democratize the leisure he enjoyed. He argued that the Old Testament God "gave his worshipers the supreme example of ideal laziness; after six days of work, he rests for all eternity." If each person pitched in for three hours a day, between naps and "juicy beefsteaks" and trips to the theater (in his utopian "regime of idleness," former politicians would be forced onto the stage), the world could produce everything it required--and more. Reducing the workday, he claimed, would in fact serve to increase productivity.

Lenin & Co. were not convinced, and the Soviets did not, in the end, institute sloth. But others carried the torch of radical leisure. In 1932 Englishman Bertrand Russell, feeling a bit more industrious than his French predecessor, argued for a four-hour workday. In the 1960s Raoul Vaneigem and his philosopher friends painted pro-laziness slogans ("Never Work") on Parisian walls. "The organization of work and the organization of leisure are the blades of the castrating shears whose job is to improve the race of fawning dogs," Vaneigem wrote. "One day, will we see strikers, demanding automation and a ten-hour week, choosing, instead of picketing, to make love in the factories, the offices and the culture centres?"

Spanish anarchists, Italian Marxists and American lunatics, throughout the twentieth century, called on the masses to stop working. Institutions, the thinking goes, need us to slave away at the office, at McDonald's, at the power plant. If we stop, then boom! No red tape. No burgers. No lights. Freedom! Yet despite their slogans and signs, somehow none of the pro-lazy constituency ever managed to organize millions to march into the indolent unknown.

France did institute a thirty-five-hour workweek, and other European countries offered long paid vacations (long, at least, compared with paltry American standards). But as 1960s idealism ebbed, so did the revolutionary politics of paresse. In the United States we work 20 percent more than we did in 1970; in Spain and Portugal, one can barely take an afternoon nap anymore. Even the Parisian workweek has died an ignoble death, slain by politicians' promises of increased productivity. In the battle over working hours and social services, the hours are winning and the services are losing.

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