IDLENESS IN THE AGE OF COVID
“Leisure is not the same as the absence of activity… or even as an inner quiet. It is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.” – Josef Pieper, 1948
A little over two months into stay-at-home orders, my unemployment status in appeal, I find myself, along with some 32% of the people outside of my window here in Los Angeles, spending a lot of time reflecting on the hand we’ve been dealt. I can say with confidence that many of the recently unemployed, and many of those who are still technically working from home despite not doing much work at all, are experiencing more time outside of the usual production cycle than they would have ever imagined in their adult life.
I can also say with confidence that this time will have an impact on the collective consciousness of these people, who will take different comforts and draw new conclusions in their newfound lifestyles, some of which may be difficult to shake, consciously or unconsciously, if and when we return to ‘business as usual’. Leisure compels new ideas, and the lack of leisure diverts them. The present circumstances beget new ideas about the virtues of work, or how a worker is supposed to relate to a system feeble enough to collapse when a few people on Wall Street even think about the prospect of not spending money, or what it means to confront certain existential questions that usually fade into the periphery while we go about our ‘normal’ days.
If there is a silver lining to this pandemic, it is that this consciousness can be geared and directed into the origins of a cultural shift that fundamentally changes the way we spend our time, value ourselves, and -when it comes down to it- conceive of meaning in our lives. These things, of course, are all interconnected, and they all concern themselves with what we do on a day-to-day basis. In the words of author Annie Dillard:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”
They say we live in unprecedented times and, while I tend to agree, I think that we can look back at some familiar disasters in our history to gather some insight into what may unfold. A dramatic drop in the workforce is nothing new in a capitalist society. In fact at 23 years old this is already the third recession my age group and I have lived through. Before the counterculture all but eradicated the prospect of the draft in our country during the Vietnam Era, wartime could also lead to a dramatic drop in the workforce, as young men were shipped off to fight and die in foreign countries. An author who has been talked about some lately, Bertrand Russell, paid close attention to this dramatic loss of working men in England, where 5 million soldiers were sent off to fight in WWI between 1914-1918, with millions more men, women and children changing the landscape of production at home.
One of the things Russell noticed was that, despite massive losses to the workforce and huge dips in production/consumption of typical goods and services, it was still “possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world”. He is comparing the early 20th century ‘modern world’ to much of human history prior, when technology and machinery weren’t advanced enough to contribute significantly to production and therefore workers were necessary at every stage to keep society afloat. He imagined the end of the war could have allowed for everyone to return to work, with those who had taken on the absent roles maintaining their positions as well, while the country normalized a 4-hour work day, and thereby maintained their adequate levels of production and consumption. This same idea was floated by the extremely prescient John Maynard Keynes, who even speculated that in the 21st century we would see a 15 hour work week with a 5 day weekend. They would both be disappointed:
“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.”
If pay and consumption were really tied to productivity, then certainly an infrastructure that allows for less work on the part of all while maintaining comfortable levels of consumption (as was proven possible during the war) would be desirable. Russell explains that the reason for the return to chaos was much more idealistic on the part of workers:
“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.”
In other words, workers don’t consume what they produce, and they don’t consume at the level that they produce. The virtues of work and duty have been embedded into our culture to such a strong degree that we accept them blindly despite a clear knowledge that much of what we produce comes at the expense of our leisure, other people’s livelihoods, and the natural world. Many of the unemployed today feel a certain guilt in their idleness, as if they are not fulfilling some kind of nebulous societal duty. Meanwhile, this idleness has been an everyday reality for the well-off for as long as history itself. And their idleness has been important, not just for them, but for all of us; the most important developments in thought, science or art overwhelmingly came from people of means who simply did not have to worry about the prospect of making money or the commercializing forces that come with that worry. From the perspective of the advancement of humans overall, you could even say that the role of the ordinary worker was to provide the comforts necessary for the leisure of a select few, who could then make use of this time to propel humanity forward.
This doesn’t have to be the case today. Tides of scientific developments, as a result of this labour, have now made us productive enough to distribute leisure more evenly, in a system that doesn’t require constant motion to merely reach that level of comfortable survival. In many industries this has made little difference, as workers neither work less nor make more despite huge leaps in productivity. Other industries have even been built to fix problems that never really existed at the expense of potential leisure or the livelihood of entire communities (see: tech in San Francisco). Russell continues:
“leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.”
Thus, it is not work that is intrinsically good, but the leisure that it allows for. Work, however you’d like to define it, is a means to this end. We toil with the Earth so that we can provide ourselves with the comforts necessary to do what we will. We don’t enjoy idleness in order to make us more efficient workers. The dutifulness of work is a tool of our own design, perhaps as a coping mechanism during times when constant work was necessary or perhaps as a way for the powerful to pacify workers. We wilfully produce beyond what we consume, not as some act of altruism to the rich or to make our bosses happy, but more often out of some sense of pride. An example of this is the fact that some 55% of Americans don’t use all of the allotted vacation time granted by their employers. We wear hard-work as a badge; when an American complains about their hard work it is not only meant to communicate fatigue, but also some kind of masochist honor or respect. It is a race to the bottom, a competition of pain, or as Russell calls it “a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious,” and it serves no one but the class of people who are consuming the unaccounted for fruits of our labor. In my view, it is horribly misconstrued.
But what then actually constitutes leisure? What would we even do with this newfound time? Can’t leisure be used for nefarious purposes? Part of this question is already being answered now by those Americans who have lost their jobs and can afford to spend their time (because of unemployment insurance, etc.) to focus on other things than making ends meet. Russell says:
“A man who has worked long hours all his life will be bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things.”
This is as depressing and nihilistic a thought as an. Essentially, this is to say ‘we would have nothing to do if we didn’t have to do the things most of us don’t like to do all of the time’. Perhaps it is too big of an assumption to say that most people don’t like working 40-hours a week at their jobs. Nothing in my personal, anecdotal experience (or for that matter, nothing I’ve ever read or seen in popular culture) has suggested to me, though, that most workers either a) enjoy their jobs more than their free time or b) would prefer to work more if they could (granted money was not an issue for them). A thought so depraved, and normal, is a condemnation of our current society, and certainly did not always exist. Russell argues that:
“There was formerly a capacity for lightheartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.”
Today this attitude is widespread. Hobbies are commodified, personalities are transformed into brands, boredom is counteracted with shopping. Culturally, the idea of doing things solely because they’re good in and of themselves is all but dead. This is a result of living within structures that praise the virtue of dutiful work and acquisition above all other values. Our leisure time then is often used only as another way to advance ourselves in the eyes of this structure.
Leisure time, in the small doses allotted to the worker, also lends itself to passive activities more than active ones, like watching TV, scrolling through your phone, and so on. While these activities are perfectly fine ways to spend one’s time, they are often utilized only because the working person has exhausted their energies throughout the workday. Throughout this pandemic I have personally seen, within myself and my peers, an uptick in more active pursuits, whether they be exercise, writing, cooking, music, painting, learning, exploring, etc. Extended leisure leads to us having the energy to enjoy these active pleasures. Such pleasures seem and have perhaps felt strange for many of us, which is indicative of the broken system we were participating in before. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard, in the year 1843:
“Boredom is the root of evil; it is that which must be held off. Idleness is not the evil; indeed, it may be said that everyone who lacks a sense for it thereby shows that he has not raised himself to the human level.”
The benefits of leisure, of living on the human level, extend beyond the reach of these active pleasures. Historically, we have been quite wasteful in our use of leisure time, as the leisure class has been kept incriminatingly small, and have inherited much of their wealth, thereby often lacking in diligence. Russell says of them:
“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”
Should leisure be more evenly distributed, those who were curious could indulge their curiosities, artists and non-artists alike could make art for the sake of making it, people could write comfortably without resorting to sensationalism or commercialism, they could create great things while their spirits and taste allow for it without having to sell-out for years to get to such a point of economic independence, they could learn more about the problems the world faces, think more critically about them, run for office without worrying about the financial aspects of the pursuit and therefore without corrupting forces abetting them, and spend more time enjoying the presence of one another. We can rethink and rediscover the value of each human being as fundamentally an active thinker or creator, as more than just a cog in the wheel. It reminds me of a quote by anthropologist Margaret Mead, who in her studies of creativity in humans all over the world offered this insight:
“If we make one criterion for defining the artist…the impulse to make something new, or to do something in a new way — a kind of divine discontent with all that has gone before, however good — then we can find such artists at every level of human culture, even when performing acts of great simplicity.”
Imagine the potential of a society where everyone has appropriate access to these elements of their humanity. Ideas that originate from the industrious spirit of the working class, the masses instead of the few. Time to think, advocate, relax, innovate, visit friends or family. This doesn’t require abolishing work or capitalism or private property. It requires changing the rules for what an acceptable amount of leisure is.
Russell finishes In Praise of Idleness:
“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 the 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 for ever.”
The issues at hand are deeply structural. While there are many avenues to create these changes, which will help us individually and collectively, there are a few straightforward options. The People’s Policy Project created a great proposal called The Leisure Agenda that pushes for nationally mandated vacation time, paid leave, and greater unemployment insurance. Workers today could follow in the footsteps of the labor movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which organized on massive scales for most of the protections and amenities that workers enjoy today, including the 8-hour day, 40 hour workweek. We could reorganize a certain subset of mechanized production that produces a certain annual value, with little-to-no human labour costs, that is designated solely to national programs ensuring affordable or free housing, health care, food basics and education for all. Machines do the work, ordinary people reap the benefits.
However, what needs to be done first is what I am attempting to do here today. The current pandemic is allowing many of us the time to experience, read and think about the value of idleness in our lives. People need to be made aware of our alternatives. We have the scientific capabilities available to us to live at the same levels of consumption and production for the average worker while working far less than we are today. We must understand that the virtues we place onto work or duty do not serve our long term interests, but instead damage them. We must see the value in idleness for our personal lives and communities, and understand it as an end, as opposed to a means to rehabilitate ourselves daily before our next work day. Only then will we be able to achieve a world where we can fully enjoy the intricate beauty of our humanity.