Learning to Laze

by Eric J. Weiner

From Saint Pélagie Prison in 1883, Paul Lafargue wrote The Right to Be Lazy, an anti-capitalist polemic that challenged the hegemony of the “right to work” discourse. The focus of his outrage was the liberal elite as well as the proletarians. His central argument is summed up in this quote:

Capitalist ethics, a pitiful parody on Christian ethics, strikes with its anathema the flesh of the laborer; its ideal is to reduce the producer to the smallest number of needs, to suppress his joys and his passions and to condemn him to play the part of a machine turning out work without respite and without thanks.

Quite a bit has changed since he wrote his polemic, yet I think there are some important insights that still resonate in the 21st century. Unlike the industrialism that informed Lafargue’s critique of the bourgeoisie’s work fetish, time at work in the 21st century is no longer primarily experienced in the factory or small brick-and-mortar business. In today’s knowledge economy, we celebrate a form of “uber” work where workers “enjoy” the flexible benefits of constant connectivity, borderless geographies of work/time, and schedules unconstrained by days-of-week or time-of-day. Workdays blend into work-nights which slide into work-mornings without beginning or end. Not unlike techniques of “enhanced interrogation” that leverage the power of time to (dis)orient, in our current historical juncture time is erased leaving workers without a sense of place; there is nothing to distinguish Wednesday from Sunday, Monday from Friday. In this new timeless workscape, the old adage TGIF is meaningless, an artifact as quaint as the vinyl record or paper road maps. Within this environment, workers struggle to adapt to this new model. For example, people still claim to need more time, yet in the 21st century postmodern workscape, time no longer has a meaningful referent. It simply floats above labor signaling neither a beginning nor end. Clocks likewise have become a quaint, antiquated technology of a mechanical era, yet they are still ubiquitous in most work-spaces. In this new workscape, clocks don’t measure time in order to determine the value of one’s labor on an hourly, weekly, or annual calendar. For uber-workers, the clock never gets punched because it doesn’t really exist in the context of their flexible workscapes. At most, they can orient workers to meet up for lunch or for that rare occasion when a body-to-body meeting is desired (it rarely is). They also, in the form of a wrist watch, can represent a kind of retro-cool, a form of cultural capital, especially when the watch is an “automatic”!

Uber workers are “free” to take a break yet no one can or actually does because “taking a break” requires one to be at work somewhere, anywhere. Today’s uber-workforce has no indigenous location, no point of reference in time and space and therefore no recognizable beginning or end. Without this geography of labor, workers are always “on,” and never “off.” This constant state of work is then described as a form of freedom.

In Erich Fromm’s work, this would be called a form of “negative freedom” as it results in a form of psychic bondage. Bound to the “dogma of work,” as Pélagie describes it, uber-workers exhaust themselves in the service of a new extreme form of progress, which is the same thing as if one decided to serve God herself. If the uber-worker does actually stop working then she loses wages even though she was never guaranteed to earn wages while working in the first place. Bloggers, You-tubers, Instagrammers, brokers (real estate and financial), and self-employed anythings work constantly, are consumed by work, even though there is absolutely no guarantee of being paid for their labor. The value of this labor is a mystery to even those that do it. Progress as a rationalizing referent of modernity, in this new uber-workscape, is replaced by an extreme discourse of representations; a form of economic and cultural pornography that debases the objects of work as well as the worker herself. People are consumed as they work to consume.

The uber-worker doesn’t go to work anymore because she is always at work, everywhere and nowhere at the same time. On the beach, in the car, at the coffee shop, in the pub, in the park, at the gym, in a temporary “office space”. They work beyond time and without borders to the point of exhaustion and at the expense of love and family, as well as other hedonistic pleasures. There is a delusional dimension to this work fetish, one built on the promise of the very things it makes impossible. The reward for uber-work is supposed to be uber-freedom and uber-pleasures. But these are, in Ernst Bloch’s phrase “swindles of fulfillment”; the reality is quite the opposite but made more pernicious by a form of false consciousness that would have these uber-workers fight for their “right to work” beyond time and place, in the border regions of labor. Places are exchanged for ephemeral spaces, which it must be said are nicely appointed in that “design within reach” aesthetic so popular with the uber-working class of 2019. What was true in Pélagie’s time seems just as true now. He writes, “A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway. This delusion drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny.”

The delusion that work is essentially good and brings with it happiness is manufactured by the ideologues of capital, work and progress, not to mention a la Weber the immeasurable power of religion to shape attitudes about work. Laziness is for sinners, work is for saints. Production is rationalized by the constant demand to consume. The demand to consume is fueled by the promise of salvation through consumption. There is little that the uber-worker can do to extract herself from this circuit of production-consumption-salvation because it defines, sustains, and gives her pleasure. It’s the ouroboros of capitalism; the worker consumes herself at first for sustenance and pleasure, but inevitably and tragically her “death” is the final outcome in the circuit. She literally or symbolically works herself to death.

It’s a perversion of the human spirit; we thrive on things that are completely free, outside the circuit of labor, within time, located in actual places, not virtual spaces. In community, nature (mountains, parks, beaches, seas, bays, oceans, fields, pastures, deserts, plains, streams, rivers), family, and art we discover a new human ecology within time and place, connected in/on flesh, our senses multiply as seeds of possibility get planted in the fertile soil of our hearts, minds and imaginations.

This is not utopian fantasy. The most perverse contradiction in our current era, and one that Pélagie understood, is the reality of freedom through leisure—laziness—is achievable using the same technology that has imprisoned so many. We can be free to pursue the pleasures of the body/mind by handing over the reign of production to machines. There is no reason why, in our age of the computer and the advanced machine that humans need to labor the way they do. Our technology can help free us from the grip of work. Unfortunately, it cannot free us from the “dogma of work,” the hegemonic system of thought that makes laziness a sin and the uber-worker, if not a saint, then an apostle of the hegemony. One possible place where we can create a “counter-hegemonic” discourse regarding work and leisure is, of all places, the modern school. I say this knowing that the modern school has historically served the interests of capital.

In his seminal work, Learning to Labor, Paul Willis describes an entrenched capitalist ideological institution that takes working class resistance to capitalism’s value system and turns it on its head. In Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis show in detail how schools help reproduce economic inequality by teaching, implicitly (hidden curriculum) and explicitly (standards of knowledge and learning sanctioned by the state) knowledge, skills and attitudes that serve specific class interests. Ghetto Schooling by Jean Anyon, Theory and Resistance by Henry Giroux, and Education Still Under Siege from Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux are three more seminal works in critical studies of schooling in capitalist America that show how schools function as ideological systems that support the “dogma of work”. But schools are not overdetermined places and can be redesigned to teach new generations how to not simply balance work with family (remember that this was a very powerful bit of propaganda sold to women which got many of them to work even more than before they entered the “official” labor force), but to embrace a new human ecology.

Pursuits of pleasure and creativity, love, laziness, idleness, and sensuality become the stuff of time and place. Learning to laze would not just critique the dogma of work as it gets manufactured under neoliberalism, but would focus on unlearning habituated responses to laziness that are part of the disciplinary culture of the modern school. The process of unlearning involves reintroducing the body as a site of knowledge, pleasure, creativity, and passion. By reactivating the senses, we can teach students to be still, listen, contemplate, and rest. Without the burden of guilt or the classification of dysfunctional or deficient, schools can begin to decolonize the body and mind in the service of laziness. Schools can become convivial institutions in which work is limited and self-directed forms of play and projects of creative inquiry and production provide opportunities to practice this new discourse of pleasure and freedom.

Here is a partial list of organizing practices that can help move us to unlearn the dogma of work and establish a new human ecology built in part on the right to be lazy:

1. Do less, be more.

2. Close your eyes, see more.

3. Make something beautiful with someone.

4. Consume less, reuse more.

5. Turn off, drop out, tune in.

6. Think more, talk less.

7. Read more, write less.

8. Touch more, text less.

9. Move more, stretch more, walk more, go nowhere.

10. Mind time, find a place, take root.

11. Stroll, don’t walk.

12. Work well, labor less.