Bertrand Russell famously argued in defence of idleness, depicting work as a necessary evil. It had no intrinsic value. Instead, we should look at what we produce for its own sake: literature, art and philosophy. The value of these achievements is revealed in their very uselessness and it is only when we have adequate leisure that we can turn to their creation (Russell, In Praise of Idleness, 1935).
But Russell’s view can be resisted. There is value, too, in what Russell dismissed as mere useful work. Russell’s argument reveals an aristocratic view of what counts as work and unreasonably relegates the value of certain forms of human activity to worthlessness.
Work is a necessity, Russell argues, only because nature is unkind to us, failing to provide easily all that we need in order to survive, bringing the occasional famine too. Even so, it is still up to us what social arrangements are put in place to ensure such work as is necessary is properly conducted and rationally apportioned.
Here, we have failed to deliver a happy solution. Most people are doing far more work than they fairly should have to, while at the same time, and not merely by coincidence, we support a leisured aristocracy. Furthermore, some are worked near to death while others are unemployed and starving. If instead we all worked just four hours a day, not only would there be work for everyone but there would also be equal leisure time in which we all could contribute to human knowledge and culture, enhancing the development of civilisation. It is this that Russell really values. Thus far, everything that we call civilisation has had to come from those fortunate leisured few. Imagine, though, how much the sciences, arts and humanities would develop if everyone had the free time to fulfil their potential in that respect.
"If we all worked just four hours a day, not only would there be work for everyone but there would also be equal leisure time in which we all could contribute to human knowledge and culture, enhancing the development of civilisation."
Was Russell right, however, to claim that all work is bad? Doesn’t that depict us all as fools or victims for doing it, especially when we perform work willingly?
To answer this, we need to understand what Russell took work to be. Fortunately, he offered us a clear definition. ‘Work is of two kinds’, said Russell, ‘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.’ Specifically, he did not take novelists, historians or physicists to be engaged in work. Theirs were activities of a higher order. They were advancing civilisation, not merely conducting the necessary evil.
We can challenge Russell’s division from two directions. First, is one really not engaged in work when one is contributing to civilisation? Try telling that to the beleaguered academic scientist or philosopher, or a writer who slaves for a meagre royalty, and see what a reply you will receive. Second, is what Russell calls work really devoid of intrinsic value?
On the first point, I will dwell little further except to wonder whether Russell separates from work the very indulgencies that he and his class had the good fortune to monopolise. Notwithstanding this speculation, though, I have little doubt that Russell worked, and worked hard, producing his popular books and journalism, conducting arduous lectures tours, even more rapidly when he had children and numerous alimonies to support.
"Who is to say that feeling useful is not a deep human need, reflecting a nature of activity and dynamism? All the more tragic, then, if we have an economic system that makes us resent exercising those abilities in the interest of capital."
The second point raises more interesting metaphysical questions. Initially, Russell’s view seems correct. Workers typically have little interest in what they do and are willing to execute their tasks only in exchange for pay. People want a job so that they can feed, clothe and house themselves and their families but would gladly forego those labours were such needs not an issue - for instance, if they won the lottery. Yet it also seems possible to explain away such depressing facts as a contingency of current economic arrangements. We are alienated from the product of our labour, as Marxists would say. We have neither ownership nor interest in the goods we produce in return for wages.
Such unjust circumstances might well hide a deeper truth concerning the place of work in our lives. This truth reveals that there is a natural pleasure and satisfaction to be gained from exercising our mental and physical capacities. We enjoy doing things. This drive may well be exhibited most acutely in ‘useless’ activities, such as the arts, sport and play. Nevertheless, there can still be such pleasure in the exercise of abilities that are also useful. Consider, for example, crafts such as basket making and pottery. These hobbies are satisfying not just because they produce something that can be used – although that might well be a precondition of such activities being pleasurable – but they are satisfying also in their execution. To have learnt a skill, acquiring physical and mental powers, and then manifesting such a skill expertly, makes us feel capable: in control of our immediate environment and not at its mercy. What we do might be useful – yes – but who is to say that feeling useful is not a deep human need, reflecting a nature of activity and dynamism? All the more tragic, then, if we have an economic system that makes us resent exercising those abilities in the interest of capital.
We like to be productive. Russell knew that. He was one of the most productive of us all. To say that what you produce is of value, but what others produce is not, sounds unfair, uncaring and self-important. Life is not just being; it should also be a doing. We do because we can. We do because we want to. And many things that we do can qualify as work, including activities that we do wholly for ourselves. But even those things that we do for others, given that right circumstances, can also be valuable, useful and pleasurable.