Idle Idol – Bertrand Russell
From Idler 3, January 1994
By Orlando May
Vehemently opposed to the work ethic, Bertrand Russell was also probably the most prolific and hard working thinker in this century. In 1932 he wrote an essay, “In Praise of Idleness”, where he investigated the idle paradox & argued for a four hour day.
If you’ve ever opened a Bertrand Russell book you’ve probably felt a sense of gloom and inadequacy striking on about the first page you come to – his list of works. You thought his History of Western Philosophy must have taken half a lifetime, but there it is, nonchalantly tucked away among some 40-odd other books. Perhaps, however, looking down that page, your eyes and despondency were also checked by another, equally discretely inked-in number – In Praise of Idleness. A new friend.
Of course, Russell himself, with this almost ostentatiously placed document of profligacy, might seem to be teetering somewhere between hypocrisy and condescension. But whilst a skilful praiser, he quickly admits to being a hopeless partaker of idleness, complaining that “being a virtuous child, I believed all that I was told, and acquired a conscience which has kept me working hard down to the present moment. But although my conscience has controlled my actions, my opinions have undergone a revolution.”
But this little collection of essays has bigger things in its sights than just incitements to laze around. Writing in 1932, in the thick of global depression, with Stalin and Mussolini firmly in place and Hitler about to become Chancellor of Germany, Russell intertwines his condemnation of the work ethic with the advocacy of a complete social revolution.
In common with many intellectuals of these times, his question is not whether their needs to be a radical reorganisation of society, but how best to conduct it. The requisite massive increase in state control of life is now, of course, for better or for worse, completely off any mainstream political agenda. But the sheer magnetism of Russell’s thinking and, for want of a better word, decency, are still inspirational.
The idle twist to his socialist philosophy sees him trumpeting not so much the redistribution of wealth as the redistribution of leisure. And whatever that changes in the political landscape, his analysis of the history of the work ethic and its bogus nature still resonates. “There are men who, through ownership of land, are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work. These landowners are idle, and I might therefore be expected to praise them. Unfortunately, their idleness is only rendered possible by the industry of others. Indeed it is these people’s desire for comfortable idleness which is historically the source of the whole gospel of work. The last thing they have ever wished for is that others should follow their example.”
He amplifies his interpretation of this history. Once, and indeed for most of the history of mankind, hard work could at best produce little more than enough to stay alive. What little surplus created was taken by warriors and priests. Knowing that they would have to part with it anyway, it also became necessary to force people to generate such a surplus in the first place. The force required, however, itself somewhat costly and bothersome to those organising it, was gradually reduced as it was found possible to induce people to accept an ethic according to which hard work was a duty.
For thousands of years, therefore, the rich have been preaching the dignity of labour, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect. Russell sees parallels to this strategy in men’s treatment of women, through which “men have tried to make women believe that they derived some special nobility from their sexual enslavement”. He notes the success of this propaganda in that “even to this day, 99 per cent of British wage earners would be genuinely shocked if it were proposed that the King should not have a larger income than a working man.” To call it “propaganda”, though, suggests a sort of intentional deception which is often absent – the holders of power often conceal this fact from themselves by managing to believe that their own interests are identical with the larger interests of humanity.
With the holders of power and their subjects all believing the same thing, such a system has all the force and staying power of a fully-fledged world view. It has been imprinted on people’s minds so deeply and for so long that it lingers on despite the huge changes in economic reality borne of the last 200 years.
Russell is no relativist about this system, however, and feels no inclination to defend it by virtue of any inner incoherence. Yet he does end up feeling he must defend it on other grounds.
In former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labours of the many. But Russell believes that positive effects followed from this system. “Athenian slave-owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilisation which would have been impossible under a just economic system.” Thanks to the fruits of idleness, the interests of the holders of power sometimes became the interests of humanity. “The leisure class enjoyed advantages for which there was no basis in social justice; this necessarily made it oppressive, limited its sympathies, and caused it to invent theories by which to justify its privileges. These facts greatly diminished its excellence, but in spite of this drawback it contributed to nearly the whole of what we call civilisation. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote books , invented the philosophies and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.”
But while Russell commits himself to endorsing such exploitation, this is only in so far as the interests of ‘civilisation’ are concerned. “The method of a hereditary leisure class without duties was… extraordinarily wasteful. None of the members of the class had been taught to be industrious, and the class as a whole was not exceptionally intelligent. The class might produce one Darwin, but against him had to be set tens of thousands of country gentlemen who never thought of anything more intelligent than fox-hunting and punishing poachers.”
The reference to industriousness here, and the somewhat interchangeable usage of ‘idleness’ and ‘leisure’ in this book, give a clue to Russell’s attitudes towards his own prodigious output – and perhaps elucidate this magazine’s own, ‘idler’s paradox’. What Russell argues for is the celebration and pursuit of free time, where one is able to do precisely as one pleases – within the usual minimum liberal norms, whether it is intensive intellectual labour, starting a magazine, or dozing in the sun with a glass of red wine.
He believed it possible that, with advances in agriculture and technology and sufficient restructuring of economic life, everyone could fulfill this minimal duty in just four hours a day. Such a theory is now unlikely to be tested, which makes it all the more tragic that Russell has been dead 20 years and we’ll never know how he would have tackled this subject in the grim context of the Nineties.