A right to be lazy? Part 2

By Jeff Sparrow | 19 Apr 14

Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off. Is there such a thing as free, creative work? Can working for nothing, or even a net loss of wealth, be emancipatory?

In this final instalment Jeff Sparrow turns to the eponymous question, “do we have a right to be lazy?” So what is the right to laziness? Is it as laudable as it sounds?

Think of the so-called Maker Movement – the hobbyists and enthusiasts who give their evenings and weekends to constructing robots or building steampunk keyboards or welding suits of armour or doing all manner of other weird and complex things, just for the satisfaction it brings them.

Such projects, by and large, involve no material gain. On the contrary, they generally consume huge amounts of money and time. Yet they bring such fulfilment that the Maker movement has spread globally, with ‘hackerspaces’ and Maker Faires and the like popping up throughout the developed world.

Now, many hobbyists or enthusiasts see their passions as oppositional, intuitively understanding that the work they perform in their own time possesses an entirely different logic to what they do during their day job. Some even suggest that the enthusiasm and ingenuity that ordinary people bring to creative hobbies provides the basis for a new model of business.

Indeed, that’s pretty much the logic behind modern management’s emphasis on allowing workers to be creative.

But if we examine Brouillette’s description, it’s not difficult to see the real limits of work under capitalism. Yes, some employers might suggest that profit generation should not be employees’ first priority. But they can say that only so long as the firm actually does make a profit. If the business loses money, priorities will necessarily change, for the company that does not create profit ceases to employ anyone at all.

There is a point beyond which the wage relationship cannot be reshaped. When management theorists and business leaders enthuse about artistic creativity they are, on the one hand, recognising our fundamental desire for creative autonomy, a desire that has spurred workplace revolts since the dawn of the factory age. But they’re also attempting to contain that desire within the framework of wage labour.

It’s no coincidence that, as Tokumitso notes, the modern “do what you love” philosophy is so closely associated with Apple’s Steve Jobs, who gave the classic iteration of the theme in a much-cited address to the graduating class of 2005 at Stanford University.

As a billionaire CEO, his capacity to “love what he did” rested upon Foxconn producing iPhones quickly and cheaply. In a very real and direct way, his freedom to find personal satisfaction did genuinely depend on Yu and women like Yu grimly performing the same tedious task over and over and over again, which is why the aphorisms coined by Foxconn boss Terry Gou – “A harsh environment is a good thing” – reflect Apple’s actual philosophy more accurately than the crackerbox wisdom espoused by its CEO.

White-collar employees might spend their day in a front of a computer (like Jobs did) rather than in front of an assembly line (like Yu did). But they do not – and cannot – possess the autonomy and power of a CEO. Indeed, as Tokumitsu argues, for most of us, management rhetoric about doing what you love often simply prefigures cuts to wages and conditions:

“Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.

Instead of crafting a nation of self-fulfilled, happy workers, our DWYL era has seen the rise of the adjunct professor and the unpaid intern — people persuaded to work for cheap or free, or even for a net loss of wealth.”

Consider writing, the activity Marx chose as his example of unalienated labour. At present, Australia is experiencing a boom in creative writing, one of the most popular courses offered across the higher education sector. But the undoubted pleasure that people find in self-expression cloaks all manner of horrendous working relationships – everyone in the industry knows writers will submit content for next to no payment, precisely because they’re so desperate for any outlet for their creativity. Not surprisingly, the 2010 Australia Council report, Do You Really Expect to Get Paid? An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia, notes that the “total incomes [of artists] on average are lower than those of all occupational groups, including non-professional and blue-collar occupations.”

It’s a similar point to the one Evgeny Morozov makes in his trenchant critique of Makerdom as a social movement and political project. Because, he argues, the Makers do not interrogate (let alone challenge) the structural relationships that determine how we labour, their movement becomes (like similar movements before them) less a threat to existing ways of working than a therapeutic complement to them.

You earn your money as a coder for a bank – and then, to cope with the stultifying boredom of your day job, you craft robots on the weekend. There’s no particular opposition between the two activities. On the contrary, the pleasure you find in Making allows you to cope with the tedium of the nine to five routine.

For Marx, by contrast, our inability to labour according to our own nature is, as they say, not a bug in the system but a feature. By definition, when you sell your labour power to someone else, you no longer control how you work. The lack of real freedom is, then, a constituent element of our working lives.

Marx wants a society in which we’re not crippled by the division of labour, where work allows us to develop all aspects of our personality. To become other than a crass apologia, Jobs’ slogan ‘Do what you love’ requires a different kind of world, one in which we produce freely rather than constrained by the demands of profit maximization.

One of the advantages of Marx’s formulation is that it’s less susceptible to the nostalgia that pervades these debates, where demonstrations that we can labour differently usually involve examples from earlier societies, with a tendency to see the future in terms of the past.

Despite his enthusiasm for technology, there’s more than a whiff of Merrie England about Lafargue’s communism, which often seems like a prolonged carouse on the village green.

Marx was, as it happened, as fond of boozing as anyone else (“A man who does not love wine will never be good for anything,” he once said). But his emphasis on the potential creative fulfilment to be found through labour helps us to imagine a future that sounds, well, more futuristic.

For why did Yu travel to the free trade zone to sign up with Foxconn?

“Internet technology and mobile communications has opened a window on the wealthy, wonderful city lifestyle for us,” she explained. “Almost all the young people of my age, including my school friends, had gone off to work, and I was excited to see the world outside too.”

She’d become aware of the world beyond her village, in other worlds, and she wanted access to some of the wonders it contained.

“There’s no choosing your birth,” proclaimed the company recruiting slogan, ‘”but here you will reach your destiny! Here you need only dream and you will soar!”

That might sound corny to us but it resonated with her. She did not want to remain in her village; she had no interest in learning a traditional craft. Yu wanted to go forward, not backward – she wanted the future rather than the past.

If we return to the Makers and their unabashed delight in the potential of new technology, we get a sense of how the generalisation of Marx’s creative labour might create a very different society, allowing everyone to express themselves through the labour by which they change the word.

Of course, individuals will find satisfactions in different activities, for not everyone will share the solace Wordsworth found in writing sonnets. It is not, Marx said, “that each should do the work of Raphael, but that anyone in whom there is a potential Raphael should be able to develop without hindrance”.

Not everyone will be willing or able to design smart phones. But how different would society be if all the young women performing repetitive labour on the iPhone assembly line could also do the work that Steve Jobs so loved?

The Right to be Lazy

Posing that question as to how work might be reimagined brings us to the argument that Lafargue makes about rights.

The reference in his title to laziness as a ‘right’ isn’t a rhetorical flourish. His book makes repeated reference to the ‘Rights of Man’ – and most of these references are denunciations.

‘To arrive at the realization of its strength,’ he says, ‘the proletariat must trample under foot the prejudices of Christian ethics, economic ethics and free-thought ethics. It must return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and more sacred than the anaemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution.’

The passage sounds strange today. We are so accustomed to the left defending human rights that attacks upon the concept from the left seem almost a category error.

But Lafargue is simply expressing – albeit in a somewhat unconventional manner – a once widespread socialist critique of rights.

For Marx, the wage relationship means that workers trade their ability to labour (or labour power) as a commodity like any other, something that can be bought or sold on the market.

It’s possible for workers to be deprived of their rights when they sell their ability to labour. But Marx bases his model on the best-case outcome: he assumes the wage relationship to be an equal exchange, in which workers receive the full value of their labour power.

Under such circumstances, the negotiation between employee and employer is what Marx calls “a very Eden of the innate rights of man”.

“There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and [the philosopher] Jeremy Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself.”

Naturally, having purchased labour power, the employer then puts it to use, as is her right. It is then, Marx says, in the realm of production, that exploitation takes place, as workers produce more value than their labour power is worth.

This, of course, is very satisfying for the employer – it’s the source of her profit – but it’s not a violation of the terms on which the capitalist and the worker originally bargained.

That’s why arguments based on ‘rights’ are so problematic. On the one hand, capitalist production is an “Eden of Rights”; on the other, it’s the nexus of exploitation – and these two realities take place simultaneously.

You can see the implications when you turn to the most definitive statement on the rights of workers, Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It reads:

 (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

 All four of those stipulations are entirely compatible with Marx’s model of how surplus value is extracted during the normal operations of capitalism. The worker exercises her right to work, freely selling her labour power and receiving a fair remuneration for doing so. She can even join a union if she likes – just so long as she continues to produce the surplus value upon which exploitation rests.

No rights are violated – but exploitation continues nonetheless.

Now, this is a best-case scenario. In the real world, workers’ rights get violated all the time.

Yu’s story provides a good illustration. She agreed, in good faith, to Foxconn’s offer of work in its factory – and the company then refused to pay her what she was owed. In her case, the exchange was not equal and, in theory at least, she could have taken her employers to court to receive what she was owed. (The practical impossibility of doing that is, of course, not irrelevant to a critique of rights)

But that kind of overt thievery is additional to the exploitation at the heart of capitalism, which remains entirely untouched by Article 23.

Sure, the UDHR makes reference to ‘dignity’, ‘protection’ and ‘favourable remuneration’ but what do those terms actually mean?

Because labour power is simultaneously a commodity and a human capacity, both the buyer (the capitalist) and the seller (the worker) can assert with equal legitimacy a right over what happens to it. Marx again:

“The capitalist maintains his right as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible … On the other hand … the worker maintains his right as a seller when he wishes to reduce the working day to a particular normal length. There is here therefore an antimony, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides.”

In other words, the content of terms like ‘dignity’ becomes meaningful only through the kinds of industrial struggles we have previously discussed. In the Australian context, it might be possible to assert that an assembly-line run like Foxconn infringes on the right of workers to dignity. But if so, it’s only because Australian unions have won certain generally accepted standards – and have done so via what Marx here calls ‘force’ (industrial campaigns, etc).

By contrast, any similar claim in China’s free trade zone would certainly fail because the employer would simply – and quite truthfully – assert that his workers receive all the norms to which employees in Shenzen are accustomed.

This is why Lafargue’s assertion of a ‘Right to be Lazy’ is so provocative.

Marx argues that once an employer has purchased labour power at its value, the right to use that power belongs to him or her, just as the right to use any other commodity would. “From the instant [the worker] steps into the workshop, the use-value of his labour-power, and therefore also its use, which is labour, belongs to the capitalist.’

Within the discourse of rights, then, the worker who refuses to work, or who works below a normal standard, is, in effect, cheating the employer – engaging in ‘time theft’, as Amazon’s supervisors call it. No court would uphold the claim of the employee to idleness; even in the most liberal democratic country, laziness provides an adequate basis for dismissal.

“If the worker consumes his disposable time for himself,” says Marx, “he robs the capitalist.”

The Right to be Lazy – or, indeed, the right to work other than as directed – is not a right. On the contrary, it’s a formulation that packs such a punch precisely because it’s incoherent – or, more exactly, because it’s incoherent within the existing relationship between capital and labour.

Here is Lafargue’s thundering conclusion.

“If, uprooting from its heart the vice which dominates it and degrades its nature, the working class were to arise in its terrible strength, not to demand the Rights of Man, which are but the rights of capitalist exploitation, not to demand the Right to Work which is but the right to misery, but to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her …”

Marx famously contrasted the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” (which is generally what’s meant by the Right to Work), with the revolutionary slogan, “Abolition of the Wages System”. There’s a sense in which, by demanding laziness (which is not, and cannot be, a right) Lafargue does the same thing.

As we have seen, the rhetorical force of Lafargue’s polemic entails a certain loss of theoretical clarity. It’s not a rigorous book but a peculiar mixture of satire, classical erudition, political economy, nineteenth-century racialism and utopian socialism.

Yet, the tract found, as the historian David Renton reminds us, an immediate audience among working class readers. Renton calls it one of the best-loved pamphlets among the socialist movement of its day, a text translated into Russian before even the Communist Manifesto.It’s not difficult to see why.

A few decades earlier, the nineteenth century music hall star Harry Chifton wrote the song, “Work, boys, work and be contented,” in which he set to verse the conventional respectable wisdom about labour.

‘I’m not a wealthy man,’ he sang, ‘but I’ve hit upon a plan
That will render me as happy as a King
And if you will allow me I’ll tell it to you now
For time you know is always on the wing
Work boys work and be contented
As long as you’ve enough to buy a meal
The man you may rely, will be wealthy by and bye
If he’ll only put his shoulder to the wheel.

We still hear versions of this tired old tune today, both in Australia and in China. Tian Yu put her shoulder to the wheel – and now she can no longer walk.

For Marx, “hard work” under capitalism remains qualitatively different from the “intense exertion” involved in free composition. Rather than helping us to grow and flourish, it stunts and deforms us. That’s why Lafargue’s conclusion to The Right to be Lazy might have been written with Yu’s story in mind.

“Like Christ, the doleful personification of ancient slavery, the men, the women and the children of the proletariat have been climbing painfully for a century up the hard Calvary of pain; for a century compulsory toil has broken their bones, bruised their flesh, tortured their nerves; for a century hunger has torn their entrails and their brains. Oh, Laziness, have pity on our long misery! Oh, Laziness, mother of the arts and noble virtues, be thou the balm of human anguish!”