One of the resources raised in our Not School Bergmann discussion was Bertrand Russell's 1932 article "In Praise of Idleness," which you can read here.
Here's his snarky definition of work:
Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.
He's not just bashing bosses, but politicians too:
The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.
He describes how through most of history:
...A man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard as he did, and his children added their labor as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by warriors and priests.
This is still the case in many parts of the world, but ended in most of America with the Industrial Revolution and in the South with the end of the Civil War.
A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men's thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system, and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.
Russell's elaboration of this has echoes of Nietzshe's critique of slave morality: "The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own."
He says that modern technology has enabled us all to work less, as shown by the scientific organization of work during WWII, where a fraction of the labor force not in the military generated a "general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since." But this was not allowed to lead to progress:
If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.
This is the morality of the Slave State, applied in circumstances totally unlike those in which it arose. No wonder the result has been disastrous.
He argues instead for a four-hour workday for everyone, and criticizes both the British class system that would dismiss this on moral grounds (i.e. the poor wouldn't know what to do with leisure and would just cause trouble; this seems a less live objection today) and the USSR that still retains the basic ethic of work: "Manual work is the ideal which is held before the young, and is the basis of all ethical teaching."
Russell's alternative is not, outside of the 4-hours-per-day that should entitle us all to sustenance, frivolous leisure, but that:
...Education should be carried further than it usually is at present, and should aim, in part, at providing tastes which would enable a man to use leisure intelligently...
...In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.
Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one percent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.
In this 2012 NY Times (Stone) Editorial, Notre Dame philosophy prof Gary Gutting cites Russell's paper but says:
Suppose that in 1932, when Russell wrote his essay, we had followed his advice and converted all gains in productivity into increased leisure. Antibiotics, jet airplanes and digital computers, then just glimmers on the horizon, would likely never have become integral parts of our lives. We can argue about just what constitutes real progress, but it’s clear that Russell’s simple proposal would sometimes mean trading quality of life for more leisure.
I find this a typical defense of the current job system, and don't think it holds water. Innovation is interesting, and specifically part of the body of activity Russell refers to in the last-cited paragraph that people would pursue without (primarily) financial remuneration (e.g., open source software). Second, surely most of the surplus work that Russell is discussing is not now devoted to creating valuable innovations.
Gutting's solution is for consumers to not buy useless crap:
...We should increase leisure — and make life more worthwhile — by producing only what makes for better lives. In turn, workers would have the satisfaction of producing things of real value.
...The capitalist system’s own answer [to the question of what is of real value] is consumers, free to buy whatever they want in an open market...
But the answer is disingenuous. From our infancy the market itself has worked to make us consumers... True freedom requires that we take part in the market as fully formed agents, with life goals determined... by our own experience of and reflection on the various possibilities of human fulfillment. Such freedom in turn requires a liberating education...
Capitalism works for the good only when our independent choices determine what the market must produce to make a profit. These choices — of liberally educated free agents — will set the standards of capitalist production and lead to a world in which, as Aristotle said, work is for the sake of leisure. We are, unfortunately, far from this ideal, but it is one worth working toward.
I see time and again in discussions of the satisfaction or lack thereof of work the discussion get overtly or covertly channelled by the perceive political feasibility of available solutions. Most discussions assume that the political landscape is inalterable, that the work week can never in practice be reduced, that corporate power can only be slightly lessened if at all, and so the best we can do is figure out as individuals how to navigate the system to find satisfying work and/or get by with less, or maybe we can engage in small cooperative efforts to support sustainability. Gutting at least is acknowledging a systemic problem and suggesting that eduction go with one of its already dominant goals (liberal education) rather than other dominant goal (that education be strictly training for job-useful skills). But this still fails to meet the political challenge that our broken economic system poses whereby our current job situation maims the majority of people (not just the working poor or jobless) and is unsustainable over the long term. Yes, you do what you can, but don't fool yourself that simply making different consumer choices is going to reform much of anything.
Talk of a reduced work week is far from dead; here's a current (July 2013) article from CNNMoney on the issue.
Wes Alwan says
Also relevant is our episode on Marx. Marx, unlike Keynes (as per the article you link to at the end, http://money.cnn.com/2013/07/09/news/economy/shorter-work-week/index.html), did not think advances in technology would lead to shorter work days in the short run. He thought they would lead first to “pauperization.” Why? Because only the owners of capital benefit from such advances. What we have today are increases in GDP but wage stagnation except for a few; and increasing income disparity. What about pauperization? Maybe it’s coming, or maybe a capitalist system will always give enough people just enough income and leisure to keep them from revolution (a common critique of Marx).
But there are other considerations as well: for many people, office jobs offer a lot more than income. They offer some sense of pride and in some cases authority; the provide a certain amount of social contact; and above all, they structure time. As those of us who can work at home know, structuring one’s own time can be a perilous exercise. Not everyone has that discipline. And when it comes to abundant spare time, not everyone knows what they want deep down — what they’d really like to do with their time in a creative, deeply satisfying way — if they had it. Being beholden to an external authority — whether a job or familial responsibilities — allows many to minimize their exposure to this question. They “don’t have time” for that. They don’t have time not because their subsistence actually requires their 80 hour a week job; but because having time is actually a frightening prospect. Ultimately, having time means being confronted with one’s desire. And I think the anxiety of that in part explains why the 40+ hour work week is common. Sure, consumerism is a factor; but again, this is one more way of shying away from the anxiety of being full alive (desirous). Consumerism is not just some random, inexplicable bad habit that we can easily educate people out of. It’s a common addiction for a common psychological predicament.
If this account is right, the problem is not only economic and ideological, but psychological.
Daniel Horne says
…or cultural. We don’t see the same attitudes toward the work week carry over between different cultures, even within modern capitalist societies. That tells me something broader than psychology is in play. In, say, Japan, virtually every job considered to be “worth having” expects one to work what we in the States might consider murderously long hours. In fact, to my knowledge, only Japanese has a word — karoshi — for the concept of being “worked to death”:
In the US, things are less stressed out than Japan, and I don’t think that’s due to psychological factors as such. Obviously one’s culture has an influence on one’s psychology, but the differences across cultures tell me something is going on beyond one’s individual psychology. We can also identify other countries / cultures where something less than a 40 hour work week is considered normal. Say, for example, Greece, where some workers have gone on strike over threatened increases to a 40-hour work week.
Also, I’d like to push back against descriptions of consumerism as either a “bad habit” or an “addiction”. Consumerism provides many, if not most, of the physical pleasures that make life worth living. (Part of the problem here may be differing interpretations of the word “consumerism”.) Sure, it’s easy to criticize conspicuous consumption, or oniomania, etc. But all of us are consumers to some degree — it’s part of being human. I doubt the desire to acquire nice things (or acquire pleasant experiences) can be educated or counseled out of most people. It’s been attempted before (Puritanism, Bohemianism, Maoism, etc.), but I can’t think of any society in history that has been able to meaningfully quell the desire to consume; at best, they’ve been able to restrict people’s ability to act on that desire. Perhaps in that sense, there’s a psychological issue at play, but I wouldn’t characterize it as a pathology.
Ethan Gach says
How are you defining consumerism then Dan?
Can people consume immaterial things as well as material ones? Breaking Bad and Plato as well as waffle fries and curry?
To your point about the history of consumerism, I’m a bit skeptical that the desire to consume was a driving force in the majority of people’s lives prior to the industrial revolution. Greed, gluttony and such existed, but I’m not sure that those, or their consequent behaviors, can really be equated with consumerism.
In fact, the position of many consumption economy critics (like myself) would be that the drive to consume came after. And I think this is a crucial thread in Russell’s analysis: that the desire to earn more, to consumer more, etcetera, etcetera are not so much innate impulses as behaviors or dispositions conditioned or someway informed/inspired by particular market arrangements.
On the one hand, you could look at the anti-consumerism associated with the protestant work ethic (or the ant who worked hard each day, saved, and consumed little) and see it as being a by-product of the culture, and presume consumption is the natural drive and one which they are always actively resisting.
On the other hand though what’s to say that part of embracing the protestant work ethic is a move to find value in other things, and once having done so, no longer having feelings of wanting to consume, i.e. have more better furniture, more interesting clothes, better, more luxurious foods, a nicer car, bigger house, etc.
Daniel Horne says
Yes, agreeing to terms is one tricky part of any discussion of “consumerism”. Here’s Webster’s:
1. : the promotion of the consumer’s interests
2. : the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable; also : a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods
It’s this last definition, italicized, that I’m talking about, because I find it the most relevant. That is, no one has a problem with Ralph Nader (unless he’s running for President), right? And I don’t think very many people beyond, say, the Hoover Institute actually bothers to systematize a normative “theory” in favor of increasing goods consumption. In other words, I don’t think our frustrations with our busy work-life balance stems from some theory we’ve all opted into. Thus, saying we need to defeat pro-consumption economic “theory” doesn’t seem to be the call-to-arms here.
But all of us, and I mean all of us, have at least an inclination, if not a preoccupation, toward the acquisition of consumer goods. I wouldn’t call that greed or gluttony. I’d call it consumerism and so, apparently, does the dictionary.
If you or Bertrand Russell or anyone else asserts that consumption resulted from the industrial revolution (and not the other way around), I think you’ll have to do more than simply assert it. That’s a controversial claim, and fails to account for all the consumer goods (and consumer goods markets) that existed prior to the industrial revolution. You call Russell’s essay “analysis”, but I wouldn’t. (What is he analyzing?) I would instead call Russell’s account a shallow and misleading description of European history.
You know as well as I do that the ancient Greeks and Romans had markets and goods for sale just like today; it was simply conducted on a smaller scale because they lived in a smaller (population-wise) and poorer (by almost any metric) society than our own. But “consumerism” grew in tandem with the rise of towns and cities, which far predates the industrial revolution. Think of the Grand Bazaar of Constantinople, or the various town markets of medieval Europe (e.g., Bruges). Those old markets sold goods to consumers for cash in a manner largely identical to what is done in shopping malls today.
And this didn’t just happen in Europe: pre-industrial feudal Japan (which I single out only because I have some basic familiarity of its history) had consumer markets for a wide variety of goods like luxury foods, medicine, fine clothes, ceramics, artwork, etc. Why would you think those pre-industrial markets were any less driven by the human drive to consume?
Anyway, my point is that we shouldn’t treat the basic desire to possess things (or experiences) that provide creature comfort or entertainment, etc., as a “bad habit” or an “addiction.” The desire to own fun or tasty or comfortable stuff is no more pathological than the basic human desire for, say, sex or alcohol. Yes, one can go too far with it; any desire for anything can be overindulged. But drawing a line in the sand about how far is too far is arbitrary line-drawing; it’s based on nothing more than personal opinion. That’s not a strong foundation for trying to persuade anyone of the need for social change. But in any event, treating basic human desires as though they were inherently problematic creates at least as many problems as it could hope to cure.
I’m 67 and in the course of my life-time I’ve seen most people’s desire to shop for new goods increase.
A middle-class boy 50 years ago had one pair of shoes and one warm jacket, not because his family could not afford more clothes for him, but simply because no one thought of buying him more if he already had one of each kind.
Of course, the fashion industry and the smartphone industry flood us with more new goods (always improved and better) at an increasing rate today than they did 50 years ago.
What’s more, 50 years ago young people did not go to a mall for an entertaining Saturday afternoon. There weren’t many malls back then.
The whole pace of consumer buying has increased over my life-time and people spend more time (although due to China, probably not more money) today shopping, because almost everyone wants to have what almost everyone else has.
Daniel Horne says
Hello Mr. Wallerstein,
I guess what I’m challenging is the assertion in your first sentence:
“…in the course of my life-time I’ve seen most people’s desire to shop for new goods increase.”
With respect: No, I don’t think you have.
I submit that what you’ve actually seen over the course of your life-time is not an increasing desire for new goods, but rather a new and increasing ability to shop for the goods that people have always desired.
That’s a function of two empirically-verifiable events:
(1) the increased wealth of the average Chilean in recent decades, and (2) the decreased cost of consumer goods over recent decades.
So, for example, the smartphone industry is flooding us with new goods, yes. But the desire for smartphones has always been with us. We simply haven’t had the technology that allowed for consumer-priced smartphones until recently. I’ve wanted a smartphone (or something like a smartphone) since I was a kid watching Star Trek re-runs in the 70s. The fact that I can get one now speaks to technology “catching up” to a pre-existing desire.
But you don’t just have to focus on smartphones: the cost of ordinary goods has, by-and-large, fallen over recent decades.
Or take my microwave oven. I grew up in the 1970s without a microwave oven, even though they were available for sale in the consumer market. But for the expense, my parents considered it a needless extravagance. Nowadays, microwave ovens are so cheap in real terms (< US $100) that it seems silly not to own one, given the convenience it offers:
Another example: I currently own 4 pairs of shoes. (Trust me, I’m not shopping for a fifth pair!) But 500 years ago, when shoes were made by cobblers, 4 pairs of shoes would have felt like a needless extravagance. Now with mass production, 4 pairs of shoes are easily within reach. I suppose I could develop an Imelda Marcos-like mania to collect shoes for their own sake (and there are so called “sneaker pimps” who do just that; and yeah, that’s weird). But instead, I simply have a slightly more comfortable life for having 4 different pairs of shoes that fit different social / work / athletic occasions. So, I live a fundamentally richer life than did my farm- and shtetl-dwelling ancestors in the 16th century. In fact, in many ways I live a fundamentally richer life than did the 16th century kings they answered to! But that’s not because my desires differed from theirs (either my ancestors or their kings), but due to my improved ability to act on those desires.
There are still plenty of objects and experiences outside my financial reach, of course. I either can’t afford them, or I don’t find the expense outweighs the expected convenience / pleasure they’d bring. But there’s every reason to hope the people who come 5 centuries after me will have still richer lives than the life I live now. And that won’t result from them desiring more (or more expensive) things than I do — it’s just that costs will drop, so they’ll have ever greater ability to acquire not simply those goods, but in fact goods not even yet conceived. (Please, please, please let there be jetpacks!)
I’m not ready to call that an evil, addiction, bad habit, etc., any more than I would look at an alcoholic and declare the desire for beer to be an evil, addiction, bad habit, etc.
It is true that in the course of my lifetime lots of people in Chile who could not buy goods such as refrigerators and washing machines now have them, due to increased income and lower prices of durable consumer goods due to Chinese production.
(By the way, I’m not at all sure that the desire for smart-phone has always existed, not in my case at least. I don’t own one, although I feel certain social pressure to buy one and finally, I will probably buy one just not to seem weird to others, but actually, being “connected” 24 hours a day seems a nightmare to me.)
I could point out that after a certain point, increased production of consumer goods becomes an ecological menace and that’s one good reason to think before we flood the market with new ones.
Anyway, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has written several books on contemporary consumism and he sees contemporary society as one in which consumption becomes the main focus of a sense of identity. (That’s the general idea; I don’t have any of his books here, so he may use other words.)
It’s not necessarily horrible per se that consumption becomes the main focus of identity. For example, it’s not so great either that people’s identity stems from their parents’ title (lord, lady) or last-name or their religion or the football team they root for.
On the other hand, that people’s identity stems from something that they buy (what car they drive or which jeans they wear or what beer they drink) seems to indicate a lack of direction in life, an inability to stand on one’s own feet, a failure to stand for something as a person.
I guess it’s not a moral thing. I don’t see anything immoral about lacking a direction in life or not standing for something as a person.
So I guess that we’re in agreement that it’s not evil to be into consuming as the center of one’s life. Not a moral issue at all, although it’s not my option.
Nietzsche wasn’t into it either.
That’s a joke.
Wayne Schroeder says
Daniel and swallerstein–
You guys rock.
A philosophical/sociological discussion of Desire.
Daniel=Desire is good
swallerstein=Desire may not be so good.
Therefore, what are your underlying theories of desire? (FMI– for my information)
Wes Alwan says
Great points all, well taken; Daniel, despite the fact that the underlying desire to consume may have been there all along, there are real social consequences to being able to act on it — including addictive behavior. People end up distracting themselves from more substantial (sublimative) forms of living. And despite real cultural differences, I remain interested in psychological roots of the “death drive” and “Escape from Freedom” variety.
excellent point. I’m reminded of Erich Fromm’s thesis in Escape From Freedom: people desire authority because it allows them to avoid confronting the horror of their own individual existence, the horror of free choice (and now I’m thinking of that Devo song – the consumer’s freedom OF choice is really just freedom FROM choice).
as for Marx’s prediction, the anthropologist David Graeber has a lot of interesting things to say about the failed promise of automation: http://thebaffler.com/past/of_flying_cars
Good call mentioning Graeber; he has done a good job of exploding certain myths about money creation, debt and markets that have been propounded by economists since Adam Smith.
Most people have to work for a living and they have no alternatives since they do not possess capital, and capitalists have no incentive except to increase their capital, so there will always be a drive to be as profitable as possible. Better technology just allows people to generate more capital by their labor.
In a weird way, technology actually increases the capitalist’s incentive to keep workers working since every hour of work, with better technology, is more capital gained than it would be without the technology or inferior technology. The opportunity cost of not working for a day in real monetary terms is much higher than it was a century ago. This is why regulation and state action of some kind must be appealed to curtail and thwart the tendency natural to the economic system to extend working hours an pay very little.
The point Graeber makes in different places is that in the past the Romans could have made use of an early form of steam engine if they had wanted to, but there was no point since they had slaves and nobody cares if slaves (or poor people generally) have no free time or leisure. It is a social choice, not an economic one that says we should work less given the leverage technology gives us
Wes Alwan says
Tim — yep, I was thinking precisely of Fromm and Escape from Freedom (which we should do on the podcast eventually).
I should have figured you for a Fromm fan! 🙂
Ethan Gach says
To that point, I think part of why marketing and branding is so effective is that it plays on that desire not to have to actively choose. It might seem like I go into the mall and have to negotiate different brands and products, but in many cases I’m more just slipping into the role I’ve chosen for myself, and then choosing the products which I’m told conform to that e.g. the kind of person that uses X deodorant, where’s Y type jeans, and so on.
Imagine how much more difficult life would be if Coke wasn’t as recognizable as it is–how would I ever choose between five different semi-generic brands of cola?
not sure that Fromm adds much of substance (lots of unsupported conjecture including as you mention various forms of projected psychological repression not unlike Ernest Becker) that isn’t in the existentialist philosophers that somewhat informed his work (and gods-knows he didn’t care much for empirical work) but if you life the gestures made by Graeber check out:
I like Fromm’s style even though I realize most of it is a little… “fluffy”
here’s a really funny story about Fromm and B.F. Skinner: http://www.futilitycloset.com/2011/02/15/stare-conditioning/
I’ve been meaning to check out “Bifo” for ages – is there any work of his in particular you’d recommend? “The Soul at Work” seems the one most relative to the topic at hand. the title of “The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance” has always appealed to me, but I’m not sure I understand what it’s about
nice intro @ http://www.sok.bz/web/media/video/AfterFuture.pdf
Wes Alwan says
A PEL regular shared the following with me: