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.
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.