A right to be lazy? Part 1

By Jeff Sparrow

“Jesus, in his sermon on the Mount, preached idleness: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Jehovah the bearded and angry god, gave his worshipers the supreme example of ideal laziness; after six days of work, he rests for all eternity.”

That’s the French socialist Paul Lafargue in his 1881 pamphlet The Right to be Lazy.

If Lafargue’s depiction of the Father and His only Son as a pair of incorrigible bludgers still seems faintly blasphemous it’s not because we care about religion but because we care so very much about work. Cleanliness might be next to godliness but today productivity precedes both. GDP has become an unquestioned measure of social health for almost all mainstream thinkers, whatever their political persuasion. “High growth is a cause of national pride,” explains Clive Hamilton, “low growth attracts accusations of incompetence.”

That growth depends on work – and plenty of it.  According to the most recent figures, some 1.7 million Australian workers – about 1 in 6 of the workforce – spend more than 49 hours working each week. One in four “machinery operators and drivers” fall into that bracket, as do one in five “technicians and trades workers”.

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831 he noted with approval that “a notion of labor is … presented to the mind on every side as the necessary, natural, and honest condition of human existence.” Today, he would find the same attitude in almost every developed nation, including Australia.

You only have to contemplate the replacement of Australia’s Productivity Commission with, say, a Committee for Indolence to appreciate the challenge Lafargue’s enthusiasm for laziness still poses today.

But there’s another reason to return to his book.

The Right to be Lazy isn’t just a polemic about work – it’s also a polemic about rights.

With the decline of the socialist movement, rights and rights discourse have become central to what remains of the Australian Left. The ‘turn to rights’ entails a certain understanding of injustice or oppression, in which wrongs are susceptible to legal redress – think of the centrality of lawyers in the opposition to Bush-era policies during the War on Terror. The most common critique of refugee policy condemns mandatory detention as an infringement of the rights of detainees; activists rally over same-sex couples’ right to marry. Even in the workplace, unions focus on what the ACTU calls “your rights at work”.

Do we then have, as Lafargue suggests, a right to be lazy? If so, how might we exercise it? If not, what does that tell us about rights, their implications and how we effect political change without rights, in the age of rights?

A contemporary narrative 

In 2010, seventeen-year-old Tian Yu tried to kill herself.

She jumped from the fourth floor of a dormitory in Shenzen, China – one of at least 18 Foxconn employees to attempt suicide that year. Unlike many others Yu survived, though she remained paralysed from the waist down.

Researcher Jenny Chan interviewed her for the journal New Technology, Work and Employment, from which the following account is adopted.

Yu was born into a farming family, into a community devastated by China’s free trade agreements. Her parents found factory jobs in the city, leaving Yu to be raised by grandparents. As soon as she was old enough she, too, journeyed to the special economic zone of Shenzen to work at Foxconn.

Her task was to check screens for iPhones, iPads and other similar products:

“Each production line in my workshop had from a few dozen to more than 100 workers. I was responsible for spot inspections of glass screens to see whether they were scratched. I woke up at 6:30 a.m., attended an unpaid morning meeting at 7:20 a.m., started work at 7:40 a.m., went to lunch at 11, and then usually skipped the evening meal to work overtime until 7:40 p.m. I attended compulsory unpaid work meetings every day. I reported to the line leaders 15 to 20 minutes earlier for roll call. Leaders lecture us on maintaining high productivity, reaching daily output targets and keeping discipline.”

Yu’s supervisors employed the ‘scientific’ method of industrial management pioneered by Frederick Taylor. Workers’ tasks were broken into their component elements, which were then timed and monitored. The design of the Foxconn line meant everything employees did was determined by management. Even their posture was standardised, with chairs fixed permanently a set distance from their workstation.

Foremen with stopwatches ensured workers performed at the designated rate. New recruits were chided to keep up – but, if they adapted too easily, the rates were increased, so that production remained at the maximum possible pace.

Yu made no friends in Shenzen. The irregular shifts and the random reassignment of dormitories prevented camaraderie among the workers, many of whom did not speak the same dialect. The factory was, she said, “a massive place of strangers”.

Other than occasional online chats, she talked to no-one.

Then she discovered a bureaucratic error had stopped her pay. Company officials brushed aside her repeated attempts to seek redress; the small sum of cash provided by her family ran out.

Impoverished, unhappy and alone, she jumped from the building.

The Discipline of the Factory

What does this sad tale from the twenty-first century have to do with Paul Lafargue’s book from the nineteenth?

A lifelong revolutionary, Lafargue was husband to Laura Marx (Karl’s daughter) and friend to Friedrich Engels. He founded the French Workers Party; he was the first socialist elected to a French parliament. He was, in other words, a serious figure, not some louche provocateur or drawing room contrarian, and while there’s an undeniably utopian element to his work, The Right to be Lazy is written as an immediate political intervention, not an exercise in whimsy.

Much of the book consists of a contrast between ideas about work in Lafargue’s day and the very different attitudes held in earlier societies, particularly in classical antiquity. Ancient Greek philosophers regarded work as an activity fit only for slaves. So where others hailed the arrival of modern industry as progress, Lafargue saw regression.

“Far better were it,” he writes, “to scatter pestilence and to poison the springs than to erect a capitalist factory in the midst of a rural population. Introduce factory work, and farewell joy, health and liberty; farewell to all that makes life beautiful and worth living.”

When Lafargue wrote that he was describing a phenomenon that was still relatively new. Across Europe, many lived and worked on land to produce most of what they consumed. Nevertheless, modern factory production was dragging the rural populace into its orbit. Because factories were not familiar to the peasants enlisted to work in them, pioneering capitalists demanded an extraordinary degree of control.

In the 1770 publication An Essay on Trade and Commerce an anonymous capitalist explains frankly that potential workers must lose any sense of liberty. The poor, he says, should be imprisoned in “houses of terror” and compelled to work at least twelve hours a day. If they were allowed freedom they would never accept their jobs.

Marx quotes that passage in Capital. He notes acidly how what was a capitalist dream in 1770 became reality only a few years later in the guise of the factory.

Yu did, in fact, work twelve hours a day. Her shift began with the managers shouting, “How are you?”, a query to which the workers were required to shout in unison: “Good! Very good! Very, very good!”

If an employee made a mistake an entire group – often as many as a hundred people – were forced to stay behind while the offender read a statement of self-criticism.

“The company prohibits conversation in the workshop,” Yu explained to Chan.

“In the factory area, CCTV cameras are set up virtually everywhere for surveillance. Thousands of security officers are on duty, patrolling every Foxconn factory building and dormitory. Special Security Zones are commonplace…

We were not allowed to bring cellphones or any metallic objects into the workshop. If there was a metal button on my clothes, it had to be removed, otherwise I wouldn’t be allowed in, or they [security officers] would simply cut the metal button off.”

In his pamphlet, Lafargue writes of “the capitalist workshop [conquering] the country”. That’s the process unfolding now in China, with millions of men and women leaving the land to embrace industrial production, many for the very first time.

Not surprisingly, the new Chinese supervisors face problems comparable to those of their English antecedents. As Harry Braverman explains in his classic Labour and Monopoly Capitalism, “early management assumed a variety of harsh and despotic forms, since the creation of a “free labor force” required coercive methods to habituate the workers to their tasks and keep them working throughout the day and the year.”

Foxconn’s despotism serves precisely the same purpose. The company deliberately terrorises the raw peasants it recruits to accustom them to the working conditions they must hereafter bear.

Of course, terror did not suffice in Europe – and neither is it enough in China.

In 1912, the German ‘industrial psychologist’ Hugo Munster wrote of the need to acclimatise workers to the routines of ‘civilisation’, so as to “produce most completely the influence on human minds which are desired in the interest of business.”

That project, so central to European management theorists of the early twentieth century, preoccupies Foxconn in the twenty-first.

When interviewed about the suicide epidemic, Foxconn CEO Terry Gou put the deaths down to the ‘emotional problems’ of his workforce. Foxconn thereafter required new applicants to complete a psychological test.

Then, in May 2010, Foxconn’s human resources director instructed employees to sign an anti-suicide pledge with this extraordinary stipulation:

“Should any injury or death arise for which Foxconn cannot be held accountable (including suicides and self-mutilation), I hereby agree to hand over the case to the company’s legal and regulatory procedures. I myself and my family members will not seek extra compensation above that required by the law so that the company’s reputation would not be ruined and its operation remains stable.”

Eventually, international outrage forced Foxconn to back down. But from Gou’s perspective the company’s attitude made perfect sense. The workers had failed the corporation, not the other way round. The competitive manufacture of iPads depends on low labour costs. If China wants Foxconn, the Chinese need to adjust to the factory.

Yu’s tragedy thus helps us to understand what we might call a Lafargean critique of work.

When people first sell their labour power to an employer they rethink one of the most basic human activities.

Bob Black, whose influential essay ‘The Abolition of Work’ draws heavily on Lafargue, notes that men and women in pre-capitalist societies often spend less time ‘working’ than we do. Furthermore, the ‘work’ performed by, say, hunter-gatherers can scarcely be distinguished from what we might call ‘play’ since even vital tasks involve thinking and feeling and self-expression. Obtaining food might be a necessity for the tribe but foraging allows members of the group interact with each other, combining work and recreation, culture and religion.

Even feudal society, in which exploitation is more or less overt, retains elements of what Black calls a ‘ludic’ character. Production might be backbreaking but the harvest and the harvest festival belong together, each a necessary element of the crop cycle. If you sing while you plant, you aren’t slacking off: the music gives your task a rhythm, it means luck for the harvest; and it brings pleasure to you and those with you.

Capitalism reshapes this integration of work and life. By definition, when you sell your labour power, your employer owns what you do for a given quantity of time. He or she has paid for you to work and work you must therefore do – nothing more, nothing less. The very essence of the system, says Lafargue, is designed to ‘reduce the producer to the smallest number of needs, to suppress his joys and his passions and to condemn him to play the part of a machine turning out work without respite and without thanks.’

In the past, difficult or intricate tasks allowed craftsmen to acquire skills and to take a satisfaction in their use, combining beauty and function. Black gives the example of a Grecian urn: today an object of art showcased in a museum; originally a receptacle for olive oil. The production of such an object certainly involved labour, but that labour was inextricable from the maker’s own creativity.

In Foxconn  the rationalisation and control of every aspect of the job – down to the simplest movements – makes work meaningless for those who perform it.

Yu never saw the final product her plant produced. She rarely even witnessed the completion of the screen-inspection process to which she contributed. Her day involved the endless repetition of a task stripped of any context whatsoever.

No wonder, then, that Lafargue reacted with horror when French workers rallied for ‘The Right to Work’.

“Shame to the French proletariat!” he cried. “Only slaves would have been capable of such baseness. A Greek of the heroic times would have required twenty years of capitalist civilization before he could have conceived such vileness.”

For him, the slogan was anathema, since it was work itself that oppressed workers, transforming them into something other than humans.

“Our epoch has been called the century of work,” said Lafargue. “It is in fact the century of pain, misery and corruption.”

After Yu’s story, it’s tempting to conclude that Lafargue was ahead of his time, that the century to which he referred – that era of pain and misery – was not his but our own.

But that would only be part of the story.

Bread and Roses

In Australia, today, a quite different attitude to work prevails.

Adam Smith famously accepted that wages represented compensation for workers for giving up a portion of their “tranquility, freedom and happiness”. Many of us would nod along with that as we struggle out of bed on a Monday and count the days until the next weekend. Yet we would probably also agree that work can be – or should be – worthwhile and even pleasurable.

“Do what you love” is ‘the unofficial work mantra for our time’, notes Miya Tokumitsu. Even if we don’t enjoy our job we think that we should. We expect our work to be satisfying.

Tokumitso thus identifies a bifurcation of work, a division between work “which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished).” On the one hand, the lucky few who take satisfaction from what they do; on the other, the unfortunate many, condemned to tedious rote tasks. The former, she suggests, depend upon the latter, with those able to enjoy their work able to do so only because so many others are subjected to an awful drudgery.

Certainly, it’s tempting to identify the loveable/unloveable divide as an unbridgeable gulf, correlating, at least in part, with the experiential gap between life in developed and developing nations. But that is not quite accurate.

It’s true Foxconn revives the horrors of an earlier phase of industrial capitalism but that doesn’t mean its methods are anachronistic. Foxconn is contracted by Apple, after all, producing cutting-edge technology and employing tremendously sophisticated equipment to do so.

Many of the most innovative companies in the world depend upon workplaces with labour relations that would have been familiar to Lafargue.

Take Amazon, the online behemoth ranked third in CNN’s 2012 list of the world’s most admired companies. Its ability to supply an almost limitless array of products to purchasers worldwide rests upon a network of distribution centres located not in China but at the heart of the developed world – facilities recently described by the New Yorker’s George Packer as “a high-tech version of the dehumanized factory floor satirized in Chaplin’s Modern Times”.

In Salon, Simon Head writes of Amazon’s “twenty-first-Taylorism”:

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s… Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.

Amazon provides an interesting example of how working conditions are established – and, just as importantly, un-established. The way we work is shaped by many cultural, economic and historical factors. More than anything, our workplaces bear the traces of the industrial struggles fought and won by earlier generations of workers.

“Yes, it is bread we fight for – but we fight for roses, too!” The lines from the famous socialist hymn remind us that union disputes have never been simply about wage packets but bearable (and dignified) working conditions. These campaigns change attitudes to work, challenging older notions of ‘fairness’ and establishing a new consensus over what workers deserve, which then becomes the cultural norm.

If, by and large, Australian workers would be outraged by Foxconn’s militaristic bullying, that’s because of a union movement that established relatively good working conditions quite early. Let us not forget that Australia was one of the very first nations to win the Eight Hour Day, in a campaign that explicitly foregrounded the dignity of working men. Cultures of work aren’t set in stone; they are contested, they change.

Working conditions aren’t a zero sum game, either. If your job is boring and demanding, my job doesn’t become more interesting as a result. The reverse is infinitely more probable – I’m likely to find my management introduces the conditions that yours already imposes on you. Think of Gina Rinehart’s invocation of the minimal amounts paid to African miners as an attempt to lower wages in Australia.

That’s why a company like Amazon is so ferociously anti-union – it understands quite well the threat that solidarity poses to its practices.

Do What You Love

Nonetheless, the way most of us work in Australia seems to resist Lafargue’s bleak assessment of labour relations. Today, advanced management thinkers  recognise workers’ desires to find meaning in their work.

“Management theory,” writes Sarah Brouillette,

“will now speak of the experience of work as, just like art, a good in and of itself that can be delinked from any profitmaking enterprise. Work within the firm must of course result in a valuable innovation at some point… [But] it is precisely when profit generation is not the employee’s first priority, when it is made secondary to the employee’s search for paths to self-expression, self-development, and self-realization, that she is thought to produce the genuine innovations in which the employer is ultimately interested.”

In some respects this poses a challenge to Lafargue’s arguments; in others, it makes them more prescient than ever.

The Right to be Lazy concludes with a depiction of the communist future that will liberate proletarians from work. How, then, do the happy citizens spend their time? Lafargue writes:

Under the regime of idleness, to kill the time, which kills us second by second, there will be shows and theatrical performances always and always. And here we have the very work for our bourgeois legislators. We shall organize them into traveling companies to go to the fairs and villages, giving legislative exhibitions.

Let’s compare his argument to that made by Marx, whose disciple Lafargue claimed to be.

Where Lafargue emphasises leisure as an antidote to labour, a chance “to taste the joys of earth, to make love and to frolic, to banquet joyously in honor of the jovial god of idleness”, Marx sees labour as fundamental to humanity. We don’t possess wings or claws or poison fangs; we survive as a species by our ability to shape and change our surroundings – that is, by labour, which Marx calls “the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence”. Labour, is more than work. It’s the way that we interact with the world.

For Marx, the perception of work as a mere chore, something to be avoided wherever possible, comes from experiencing labour as something imposed by others. When Yu went to Foxconn she thereby lost control of her most human activity; in such circumstances, we feel, as Marx puts it, that we are “acting freely only in [our] animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in [our] dwelling and adornment.”

Compare Lafargue’s utopia. “[T]he proletariat,” he says, “must trample under foot the prejudices of Christian ethics, economic ethics and free-thought ethics. […] It must accustom itself to working but three hours a day, reserving the rest of the day and night for leisure and feasting.”

The future society Lafargue describes illustrates not so much the alternative to capitalist work but the result of it, since drinking and feasting seem like the greatest imaginable pleasures only because our experience of labour has been so degraded.

To put it another way, Lafargue implicitly accepts the distinction between work and leisure, a distinction created by the wage relationship that his book critiques. He takes for granted a notion of work as a hateful activity to be minimised, reduced to three hours a day so as to allow more time for feasting.

It’s an argument that runs through a radical tradition represented by Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward, Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism (with its declaration that “cultured leisure” is “the aim of man”), Bertrand Russell’s Praise of Idleness and even aspects of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Marx’s case is different – and, in many ways, deepens the critique that Lafargue seeks to make. If labour is central to humanity, then Taylorist management is a deliberate assault on our very essence.

The argument also explains why, despite everything, work still matters to most of us.

Like the management theorists Brouillette  quotes, Marx uses art as an example. If we leave aside the grim realities of the publishing industry (of which more later) and simply consider the experience of, say, writing a poem, we glimpse a quite different experience of work.

Wordsworth writes:

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;

And hermits are contented with their cells;

And students with their pensive citadels;

Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,

Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,

High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,

Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:

In truth the prison, unto which we doom

Ourselves, no prison is; and hence for me,

In sundry moods, ‘twas pastime to be bound

Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground…

 These are verses about writing verses. Wordsworth regards poetry as work – he compares its discipline to that of a weaver making cloth or a women spinning. But, he says, because he’s choosing to write, he experiences the composition of sonnets as ‘a solace’ rather than a burden

“The writer does not look on his work as a means,” Marx writes. “It is an end in itself; it is so little a means for himself that if need be he sacrifices his existence for its existence.”

Under the right conditions, work can be creative; if we are free to labour, labour can be fulfilling. The argument’s similar to that which Bob Black makes about craft: his claim that classical potters might have found artistic satisfaction in the production of Grecian urns. Because they weren’t working in a factory, making a useful object also meant making something of beauty. They were creators rather than simply someone else’s ‘hands’.

Marx’s argument emphasises fulfillment rather than play: if we’re really committed to making a piece of art we’re often not having ‘fun’. Think of Wordsworth’s comparison of poetry to a ‘prison’. As Marx puts it, “really free working, for example composing, is at the same time precisely the most damned seriousness, the most intense exertion.”[1]

When we’re working for someone else, we might crave laziness. But it’s precisely because free work is hard that it’s satisfying, irrespective of any monetary reward involved.

“Milton,” notes Marx, “produced Paradise Lost for the same reason as a silkworm produces silk. It was an expression of his own nature. Later on he sold the product for £5.”

[1] We might note in passing that this was not, for Marx, a purely theoretical point. Marx was both an inveterate procrastinator and a notorious perfectionist, a fatal combination for a writer. ‘Alas, we are so used to these excuses for the non-completion of the work!’ wrote a despairing Engels about his friend.