Belmont Club

Hard work

Are you ready to work? (Hat tip: Tigerhawk) This video of Bangladeshi bricklayers illustrates work at a level so basic it has almost been forgotten in modern Western economies.

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Is work a necessary evil or something many of us will be glad to have before long?

For a long time we have been exhorted to rise “on the steps our dead selves to higher things”. In 1932 Bertrand Russell argued against work in his “In Praise of Idleness.” Before anyone laughs, remember that Russell was one regarded as of the smartest people on earth in his day, just as certain individuals are so regarded in ours. Russell argued that work was compelled by necessity; and that one day we would be free of it. Then we would recognize work for it really was: a drag.  But he wasn’t worried, a sufficiently enlightened social organization (of which Soviet Russia was an example) would soon free humanity from the need to struggle against nature. Freed of the need to work, man would be become naturally pacific and communist.

In Russia, owing to more economic justice and central control over production, the problem will have to be differently solved. the rational solution would be, as soon as the necessaries and elementary comforts can be provided for all, to reduce the hours of labor gradually, allowing a popular vote to decide, at each stage, whether more leisure or more goods were to be preferred. …

The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare. We have been misled in this matter by two causes. One is the necessity of keeping the poor contented, which has led the rich, for thousands of years, to preach the dignity of labor, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect. The other is the new pleasure in mechanism, which makes us delight in the astonishingly clever changes that we can produce on the earth’s surface. Neither of these motives makes any great appeal to the actual worker. If you ask him what he thinks the best part of his life, he is not likely to say: ‘I enjoy manual work because it makes me feel that I am fulfilling man’s noblest task, and because I like to think how much man can transform his planet.  …

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.  …

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. … 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.

What Russell forgot was that man, having conquered nature, might still have to contend against man. In a world where no one was compelled to work more than four hours a day, what provision was there against the impulse to tell other people what to do? Why couldn’t activism occupy the time formerly wated on putting food on the table? Perhaps when have stopped having to keep wolves from the cave door our next task will be to keep other people’s hands out of our pockets. It will be interesting to see whether environmental causes and activism will also suffer a downturn when the cupboard goes bare. Maybe John Gardner was right when he observed that the difference between capitalism and communism was simple. “Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man, and communism is the reverse.”

Necessity is an elastic term. Work in the political context, for example, has only a tenuous connection to putting food on the table. Consider this gem of a reported conversation between Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

CHICAGO (AP) — Shortly after his 2002 election, Gov. Rod Blagojevich told Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. he didn’t appoint the congressman’s wife as lottery director because he had refused him a $25,000 campaign donation, a person familiar with the conversation told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “Blagojevich went out of his way to say, ‘You know I was considering your wife for the lottery job and the $25,000 you didn’t give me? That’s why she’s not getting the job,'” the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing federal investigation.

But then again Bertrand Russell may have never worked in Chicago politics.


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