John recently posted about Bertrand Russell and his essay ‘In Praise of Idleness’. When I was a student this was one of my favourite books, largely because I was idle and was trying to justify it (and you’ve got to admire someone who smokes such a pipe). I have been thinking about this a lot recently (sadly, this is true, this is what I think about), and considering what Russell would make of modern day Britain or the global society.
He puts several arguments forward in the essay, the first being that work (which was physical work then), was a tool for governments. The second is that leisure is a good thing, and that
"The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich. In England, in the early nineteenth century, fifteen hours was the ordinary day’s work for a man; children sometimes did as much, and very commonly did twelve hours a day. When meddlesome busybodies suggested that perhaps these hours were rather long, they were told that work kept adults from drink and children from mischief."
He criticises the uneven distribution of labour:
We have no attempt at economic justice, so that a large proportion of the total produce goes to a small minority of the population, many of whom do no work at all. Owing to the absence of any central control over production, we produce hosts of things that are not wanted. We keep a large percentage of the working population idle, because we can dispense with their labour by making the others overwork.
With an even distribution he argues that everyone will have time for leisure, leading to some kind of artistic utopia:
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.
So what would Russell make of us now? I think he would be simultaneously overjoyed and dismayed. Undoubtedly we have more leisure time than we did in 1932, and this is fairly well distributed (although sadly the 4-hour working day hasn’t caught on). With labour saving devices and a convenience lifestyle as well as more holidays and shorter working hours there is a good deal of leisure time for the average person compared to the time of Russell. But what do we do with it? Is it the great explosion of artistic endeavour and creation that Russell predicted?
Yes and No. Russell would I think be shocked to see that when given leisure time a lot of us spend it slumped in front of the TV drinking Pinot Grigio and watching other people on reality shows. But, the whole 2.0, user generated content world would delight him I think. For his painter who wants to paint without starving read Photographer who shares with the world via Flickr. And then there are all the bloggers, wiki writers, YouTube creators, podcasters who create material of mind-bendingly variable quality, but they are engaged in being creative, and that is fulfilling. So the next time someone bemoans the quality or self-indulgence of user generated content, quote Russell at them:
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.