Why Bertrand Russell’s argument for idleness is more relevant than ever

Max Hayward in New Statesman:

We are used to thinking of idleness as a vice, something to be ashamed of. But when the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote “In Praise of Idleness” in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, idleness was an unavoidable reality for the millions who had lost their jobs. Russell realised that his society didn’t just need to confront the crisis of mass unemployment. He called for nothing less than a total re-evaluation of work – and of leisure. Russell believed that we don’t only need to reform the economic system in which some are worked to the bone while others suffer jobless destitution, we also need to challenge the cultural ethic that teaches us to value ourselves in proportion to our capacity for “economically productive” labour. Human beings are more than just workers. We need to learn how to value idleness.

Russell’s call could hardly be more relevant today, as we face the prospect of another great recession. Millions may lose their jobs in the coming months and, as automation and technology continue to advance, the jobs lost during the pandemic may never return. Today, reformers point to the possibility of a universal basic income as a way to prevent widespread poverty. But, as many have learned while locked down at home on government-sponsored furloughs, a life without work can feel desolate even when supported by a steady income. Does a jobless future condemn us to live less meaningful lives?

In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, within a century, advances in productivity would allow inhabitants of developed countries to maintain a decent standard of living while working 15 hours a week. If that prediction now looks laughable, it failed for reasons that Russell foresaw. Recalling the famous example of the pin factory that Adam Smith used to explain the division of labour, Russell imagined a new technology that will halve the amount of time it takes to make a pin. If the market for pins is already saturated, what will happen? In a sane world, Russell thought, the factory would simply halve working hours, maintaining the same wages but greatly increasing the time that the workers could devote to the joys of leisure. But, as Russell observed, this rarely happens. Instead, the factory owner will opt to keep half the workers on the same hours and lay off the rest. The gains from the advances of technology will be realised not as an expansion of leisure but rather as drudgery for some and jobless destitution for others, with the savings enjoyed only by the winner, the factory owner.

Looking back over the past century, we can see Russell’s predictions borne out.

More here.