Revisiting Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise Of Idleness”

“I think that there is far too much work done in the world…”

At sixty years old, the British philosopher, mathematician, writer, and eventual Nobel Laureate is reflecting on his life. While he has spent much of his life “ working hard down to the present moment” he has had a change of views. 

He believes that:

…immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.

He goes on to make a case for the organized reduction of the amount of work done in the world.

What is work and who shall work?

Russell breaks down work into two categories:

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.

If we reflect on our modern conception of work, I would update the first definition to include the organization and movement of bits of data. In this case, the second point still stands. Controlling resources in the knowledge economy (see product managers, consultants, advertising executives) can be somewhat pleasant and definitely highly paid.

Beyond these first two, he highlights the third category of people who are already idle — people that have acquired some sort of private property and “are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work.” 

Russell is clearly showing his bias here, but what he was likely getting at was a recent (in his time) shift away from a” gospel of work” to a “gospel of wealth.”

The “gospel of work” is loosely a set of ideas emerging throughout the 1700 and 1800s that one can find a calling through work. Max Weber credited this shift to the Protestants and this sentiment is perhaps most simply put by Thomas Carlyle who said in 1843 in Britain: “Work, and therein have well-being.” 

Abraham Lincoln put it even more clearly:

labor is prior to and independent of capital. capital is only the fruit of the labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.

Towards the end of the 1800s, there was an embrace of a “gospel of wealth.” In Andrew Carnegie’s book of the same title, he makes the argument that we should celebrate wealth because of the bounties of cheap things it helps create: “Today the world obtains commodities of excellent quality at prices which even the generation preceding this would have deemed incredible.”

But Russell’s not buying it:

…their idleness is rendered possible only by the industry of others; indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the whole gospel of work

Gospel of wealth or gospel of labor —the belief in the virtue of work is fundamental.

Productivity Should Equal Idleness

Russell’s criticism of the gospel of wealth is not anti-capitalist or even anti-wealth.

It’s that everyone is missing the damn point.

Through technology, we unlocked the ability to meet our basic needs with dramatically less labor. Instead of trying to create more wealth, we should be dancing in the streets. Or at least reading a book in the park.

Instead of rejoicing that the average family could meet their basic needs, the gospel of labor was re-branded as the gospel of wealth with the same foundation of a belief in the virtue of work.

A belief in the virtue of work meant it was impossible to imagine economic possibilities where anyone might work less. To work less would be a subversive act to the whole order of things.

Russell imagines an imaginary pin factory (heyyyy Adam Smith) that creates more than enough pins for everyone at a rather cheap cost. Equipment is created to double the efficiency of pin-making. He imagines a scenario where people might use this as an opportunity to work less:

In a sensible world everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing.

Instead “half the men…are thrown out of work.”

Russell points out that in this case there is the same amount of leisure as before, except everyone feels terrible about it. The people with jobs are happy to remain employed but are surely wrecked with anxiety about eventually losing their job and the unemployed are made to feel quite terrible in a world that values work as a virtue but provides them no actual work to do.

But have faith, the gospel of wealth will save us all.

In today’s world, we gloss over this real human suffering with political hand-waving and talk of “reskilling” and “upskilling” through programs which have been found to be almost completely ineffective.

Russell also reflects on Britain during World War I, when millions of men went off to fight and millions more men and women re-oriented all of their energies to the war effort. He reflects,

In spite of this, the general level of physical well-being among wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since.

When the war effort was dismantled, “the old chaos was restored” and by that, he means that the return to the normal productive industry. Instead of keeping everyone employed and just working a bit less, Britain returned to a state where some people were fully employed and others were left without work. 

One Should Work, But Not Overwork

Photo by Justin Veenema on Unsplash

Bertrand Russell is not making the argument that we should not work. What he is saying is that we do have an obligation to do our fair share. 

it is unjust that a man should consume more than he produces.

On the surface, a belief in the virtue of work seems to support this idea. Except that in Russell’s time and still today, the belief in the virtue of work really means a narrow belief in the paid, full-time wage sort of work and only for the people who have the right skills at the time.

Russell notes “We keep a large percentage of the working population idle because we can dispense with their labor by making others overwork.” The same is true today, where in Britain 74% of the working age population is employed.

He sees the deep belief in the virtue of work transcend all economic models. In the more capitalistic west, it results in “hosts of things that are not wanted,” but in the more centrally controlled Russia, the leaders “will find continually fresh schemes by which present leisure is to be sacrificed to future productivity.”

In both cases, the virtue of hard work becomes “an end in itself.” As China attempts to become the world’s largest economy in 2019, they are taking the “hard work is virtue” model to the extreme with the 9–9–6 (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) work schedule. While some seem to think this is too far, the modern American industrialists (venture capitalists) have nothing but praise.

As Chinese expert Bill Bishop points out that in China a “Utopian destination of perfect communism will always be kicked a little further down the road.” In the West, we stay addicted to work through “the new pleasure in mechanism, which makes us delight in the astonishingly clever changes that we can produce on the earth’s surface.”

“There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play”

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

Russell likely chose the word “idleness” in his title to be provocative as a contrast to the endless busyness of work. The core message of his essay is not focused on idleness at all. It is focused on embracing a certain type of leisure that was central to existence for millennia.

In 1930 and especially now, the idea of leisure as an end it istelf, the kind that Philosopher Josef Pieper described as “the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative, beholding, and immersion — in the real” has been destroyed. Leisure is no longer something you can just do. 

We work to make money. We make money to spend it on rest. We rest so we can work more.

Part of the loss of the embrace of leisure, or at least the active type of leisure, stems from the loss of energy from working so damn much: 

The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.

What Would We Do With More Time?

One of the biggest modern concerns centered around working less is the real concern of wondering if people would know what to do with their time. As Russell says, “ A man who has worked long hours all his life will be bored if he becomes suddenly idle.” While this seems like a concern that has always existed, in 1930, Russell felt it “would not have been true at any earlier period.We have centered our lives around the virtue of hard work for so long that we lack the imagination for what we might do otherwise. 

In this final part of the essay, Russell seems to take a brief departure from reasoned argument to a a deeper plea for a little more joy:

“There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency.”

and a call for a world where people might be a little nicer:

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.

Russell’s argument up to this point centers on three things

  1. We work far too much and this is based on obsolete beliefs that are not relevant anymore
  2. Our belief in the virtue of hard work means some people are overworked and others are left without work
  3. We’d be better off letting more people work, but work less and seeing what might happen when you let people devote time to the active pursuit leisure. Or as he says, “there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia”

Essentially what Bertrand Russell is pushing us to do is to dream. This line from 1930 is surprisingly still relevant today:

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 for ever.

You can read Russell’s original essay here.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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