Farewell to the Working Class

Farewell to the Working Class

Two new books on indolence, How To Be Idle and Bonjour Laziness, issue low-energy cries for political apathy, a shorter work week and the fine art of slacking off.


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.

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.

In this climate, Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Idle is a welcome cry for more time off. A young Englishman who edits a journal called The Idler, he is straightforward about his utopian aims: “I have a dream,” he writes. “It is called love, anarchy, freedom. It is called being idle.” Indebted to his forefathers, he quotes Paul Lafargue and Bertrand Russell at length. He even steals (as any slacker would) Lafargue’s epigraph, from German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: “Let us be lazy in everything, except in loving and drinking, except in being lazy.” Such exceptions are the rule of the book. Hodgkinson insists that a commitment to leisure is essential to our spiritual and social well-being, and his enlightened state includes a strict regimen of sleeping and getting drunk.

How to Be Idle is more of an anecdotal self-help book (or anti-self-help book) than a sustained argument. “If you want health, wealth, and happiness, the first step is to throw away your alarm clocks!” Hodgkinson writes. Personal stories and friendly advice follow. He urges us to enjoy our hangovers (he assumes we are always hung over) and to drink tea and not coffee. “Coffee is for winners, go-getters, tea-ignorers, lunch-cancellers, early-risers, guilt-ridden strivers, money obsessives and status-driven spiritually empty lunatics.” At one point he even tells us where to buy our furniture (thrift stores, auctions and, of course, eBay).

The book is stitched together loosely, with each chapter corresponding to an hour of the day (“3 p.m.: The Nap” and “2 a.m.: The Art of Conversation”) and liberally sprinkled with the wisdom of a diverse crew of loafers, from Wilde and Nietzsche to Debbie Harry and Spinal Tap. He, like Lafargue, blames the captains of industry for sanctifying labor: “The great problem of the Industrial Revolution,” he writes, “was how to transform a population of strong-willed, independent-minded, heavy-drinking, party-oriented, riot-loving, life-loving Englishmen into a docile, disciplined, grateful workforce.”

Hodgkinson is most entertaining–and convincing–when he’s on a tirade. He rails against Thomas Edison (“After Edison, the machines never rested”), celebrates long aimless walks (“The pedestrian is the highest and most mighty of beings….he wanders detached, wise and merry, godlike. He is free”) and discourages readers from dousing symptoms with pharmaceuticals in order to carry on, still sick, with work. “Drug companies,” he writes, “make vast profits out of magic beans which promise to deliver us from torment and return us to the desk.” Hodgkinson would like instead to bring back the word “convalescence.” He suggests that physicians should prescribe long periods of rest–anywhere from three days to two months–for minor illnesses. “Doctors, join us!” he writes. “I call on you! You are servants of the work ethic!”

He is on familiar terms with the figures of high culture he quotes. German critic Walter Benjamin is “one of the great literary Euro-slackers of the early twentieth century”; René Descartes, he tells us, was an incorrigible late-sleeper. When studying with the Jesuits, his tutors would douse him with buckets of cold water–to no effect. Hodgkinson wisely attributes Descartes’s philosophical inventiveness to his time lying prone. “Laziness produced Cartesian duality,” he writes. Then he adds, “I lie in bed thinking, therefore I am.”

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.

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