Farewell to the Working Class
Corinne Maier's slim manifesto is a cross between Jacques Lacan and Dilbert, an abstract French psychoanalytic office cartoon. Her book is aimed at corporate life and the modern middle manager, whom she advises to slack off while keeping one foot on the office desk. "It's in your best interest," she writes, "to work as little as possible." (Maier herself works only a few hours a week.) This "active disengagement," she continues, will "undermine the system from within." Although Bonjour Laziness is peculiarly French (Maier's attacks on business language, which are largely assaults on imported Americanisms, may be lost in translation), many of the book's criticisms (CEO excesses, financial scandals) will be familiar to American cubicle dwellers and newspaper readers. If workers believe in their companies, she thinks, they are deluded. If they believe their jobs are secure, they are fools. And if they trust they can get ahead by working hard, they are certifiably insane.
Maier's response is to drop out. She tells the office worker to pretend to be working but not to commit to anything. "Seek out the most useless positions: those in consultancy, appraisal, research, and study," she commands. The rise of freelancing and outsourcing has created a workforce to which companies are less responsible, so you should be less responsible to them. (About temporary workers, she writes, "treat them well: remember, they're the only ones who actually do any work.")
From bourgeois ennui to Starbucks jokes ("How does the world end? Not with a bang but with a Starbucks"), this is mostly well-worn territory. Like Hodgkinson, Maier is erudite but muddled, her book full of subheadings but no structure. Also like Hodgkinson, she relies on rhetorical excess to bring her ideas to life. About the managerial emphasis on flexibility, she writes, "To be always available for a long list of unlikely projects--half of which are completely idiotic, the other half ill-conceived--is a little like changing sexual partners twice a year. When you're twenty, the idea might have a certain charm; but over the years, frankly, it becomes a chore. The New Management is an erection on command."
Of course, one might object to all this lazy business. What if you have to work to feed your family, to stave off poverty or sickness, to afford necessities? What if (gasp!) you really like your job? In other words, who do these writers think they are talking to? Both Maier and Hodgkinson treat the reader as a friend, someone to tease and to instruct, someone who will understand them implicitly. This is a fun game, and I'd love to join them for a series of long lunches. (Considering Maier's sales figures, buoyed by a well-publicized battle with her employer, there might be a lot of people at the table.) On the other hand, maybe all we want to do, as readers, is to fantasize about a long lunch while chowing down a Power Bar and hurrying off to the gym. These books offer a bit of vicarious indiscretion to the worker bee or, more precisely, to the educated, upper-middle-class Barnes & Noble shopper. When they ask us to change our lives radically, they do so with offhand irony tucked under cheery cartoonish covers.
In this way, the authors distinguish themselves from the layabouts of the past. Our modern loungers have chosen book deals over communal action, even of the artistic kind. Hodgkinson, for one, divides the world into idlers and "botherers," those letter-writing, protest-marching busybodies who are always mucking things up. He is so hard-pressed to imagine desires other than his own pleasures that we don't find out he has a family until we are nearly done with the book. (Children, it seems, like prime ministers, are botherers.)
Maier is equally dismissive of social action, despite her Marxian rhetoric ("Nowadays each of us is an object of exchange, destined to be placed and displaced at the whim of the firm"). Arguing for political apathy, she writes, "Humanity never ceases repeating the same mistakes, with its red tape, its extremely mediocre leaders, and...its gallows." Toward the end of Bonjour Laziness, she presents us with an ideological choice: a belief in nationalized industries, strong unions and social welfare programs, or free markets and versatile globalism. The first is a dinosaur, based on "simpleminded egalitarianism" and a nostalgic, antiglobal ideal; the second masks cruelty in the guise of progress and democracy. Maier's response: "By refusing to subscribe to either one, you can at least have the satisfaction of feeling intelligent." With all that time on her hands, she might have come up with something more appealing, or at least wittier. If Aristotle once thought leisure was necessary for political action, Maier seems to think it's only an expression of smug self-satisfaction.
This current crop of European idlers may not provide a template for a better, more leisurely democracy. Nor will they convince you to quit your job to pursue poetry or to dedicate yourself to the People's Coalition for the Ten-Hour Week. Still, they offer a dollop of rebellious pleasure and their own brands of earnest utopian thinking. And who knows? Maybe you'll put down their books, log on to eBay and buy yourself a daybed. If, as Hodgkinson writes, "the art of living is the art of bringing dreams and reality together," that's not such a bad start.