The Right to be Lazy (On this Site): Chapter II, Blessings of Work

What would this series be without a few delays? Hopefully this much longer post makes up for it! 

Paul LaFargue (Being old and lazy)

First, just look at the passage that Lagargue quotes at the beginning from a pamphlet entitled An Essay on Trade and Commerce:

…the factory population of England had taken into its head the fixed idea that in their quality of Englishmen all the individuals composing it have by right of birth the privilege of being freer and more independent than the laborers of any country in Europe. This idea may have its usefulness for soldiers, since it stimulates their valor, but the less the factory workers are imbued with it the better for themselves and the state. Laborers ought never to look on themselves as independent of their superiors. It is extremely dangerous to encourage such infatuations in a commercial state like ours, where perhaps seven-eighths of the population have little or no property. The cure will not be complete until our industrial laborers are contented to work six days for the same sum which they now earn in four.

This is an awful quote in so many ways and it’s hard to know where to even start.

But just the sincere arrogance of this whole thing. That workers are not only inferior to the bosses but the fact that they could even think otherwise would be something that would harm society as a whole. How exactly thinking ones worth may be comparable (or more) than those supposedly better than them is a mystery to me. But how it’s harm the state is by no means the same. After all, if us lowly slaves start thinking that we are as good as the employers or the capitalists then what is next? Organizing ourselves autonomously? Throwing the bosses off our backs? Reclaiming the factories? Full worker control? Oh the horror!

In reality this certainly would be a horror for the state because the workers organizing themselves may inspire others to do the same. Maybe the peasants or the other lowly proles dying on the streets don’t need to live this life of theirs while the “superior” people are living in their golden castles built on the backs of slaves and workers (or do I repeat myself?).

That last part of the quote certainly sums up the intent behind this: make more seem like less.

By any means necessary make it so that the worker thinks they are living a good life. Even if in fairly objective terms their situation is becoming worse and less empowered and not more. The ideal of this is to actually make time itself irrelevant to the worker. If they are getting paid for anything for any amount of the time then they should be grateful.

It reminds me of the Voltairine de Cleyre quote about God:

The Catholic Church says: “You who are blind, be grateful that you can hear: God could have made you deaf as well. You who are starving, be thankful that you can breathe; God could deprive you of air as well as food. You who are sick, be grateful that you are not dead: God is very merciful to let you live at all. Under all times and circumstances take what you can get, and be thankful.” These are the beneficences, the privileges, given by Authority. 

And it makes so much sense.

These people want to be our God in the end.

The Napoleon quote and the further quote from the author of the previously mentioned pamphlet only reinforces this point (emphasis added):

“The more my people work, the less vices they will have”, wrote Napoleon on May 5th, 1807, from Osterod. “I am the authority … and I should be disposed to order that on Sunday after the hour of service be past, the shops be opened and the laborers return to their work.”

To root out laziness and curb the sentiments of pride and independence which arise from it, the author of the Essay on Trade proposed to imprison the poor in ideal “work-houses”, which should become “houses of terror, where they should work fourteen hours a day in such fashion that when meal time was deducted there should remain twelve hours of work full and complete

The rulers will, can and have used the structure of work in society to keep us only further enslaved. So we may not develop “vices” (perhaps a spirit of dare is one of these so-called “vices”?) and so we can reaffirm their status above us. We won’t have time to question much less organize and hell, we won’t even be able to think about that. All we will be (ideally for the rulers) is busy, tired and too absorbed in the work for them to question or rebel.

LaFargue declares the “twelve hours of work a day” is the “ideal” for “philanthropists and moralists of the eighteenth century” which certainly seems to be the case in the quote above. And it would make sense that it would be the ideal for at least most authorities who want us to be too busy working to be thinking. That leaves maybe four or a little more (depending on how much sleep one needs) for oneself. And if you aren’t excluding the time that they give you for lunch or something and the time it takes you to get to work and back (let’s say it’s just a 20 minute walk or something) it’s even less.

Towards the end of the paragraph LaFargue again compliments the Greeks:

They proclaim as a revolutionary principle the Right to Work. Shame to the French proletariat! 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.

Look, I got nothing against the Greeks. But the first time you brought them up you mentioned them as slaveholders and seemingly (though maybe I am somehow misreading?) as a good example of people who are lazy and had no work…who were still virtuous? But I digress. Maybe I’m just making mountains out of molehills here.

Even for all of this flagrant abuse of the authority figures who have called for more work for the proles, LaFargue isn’t exactly saying that the proles are innocent either.

This work, which in June 1848 the laborers demanded with arms in their hands, this they have imposed on their families; they have delivered up to the barons of industry their wives and children. With their own hands they have demolished their domestic hearths. With their own hands they have dried up the milk of their wives.

And so on and so forth.

Although I can sympathize with the idea that the blame goes both way here and that the proletariat are certainly by no measure totally innocent it still strikes me as counter-productive to blame them for going along with a fairly dehumanizing system. I mean, sure, ideally they should be rebelling or helping the women and children share work or minimizing it or whatever else. But it’s not exactly easy to see past the lies embedded in the system and think you are better than all of this. Let alone to actually resist it and build new ones with such low amounts of material goods.

Given that I don’t know how wise it is to really focus any sort of blame on the proletariat. But again they aren’t blameless either I suppose. So it just seems like a matter of a balancing act. For whatever it is worth LaFargue only really focuses them (so far) in this one paragraph and made some semi-valid points along the way even if I’m not sure those are the ones he should be focusing on. So I feel a bit mixed about it.

And for LaFargue it isn’t as if the artists are any different a lot of the time:

They rummaged in the dust of past centuries to bring back feudal miseries to serve as a somber contrast to the delights of the present times. Have they wearied us, these satisfied people, yesterday pensioners at the table of the nobility, today pen-valets of the capitalist class and fatly paid? Have they reckoned us weary of the peasant, such as La Bruyere described him?

With “Progress” as their God and Work as Jesus they have, according to LaFargue written literature, explained economics and philosophized the world over. But all of this was for way more harm than for good. And instead of merely just being the “century of work” as some called it LaFargue contends it has been “the century of pain, misery and corruption”. Which, again, to me strikes me as a bit of hyperbole but it certainly seems to contain grains of truth here and there given the conditions of workers he has laid out and the intentions and motivations and big players involved in crafting it all. So if LaFargue is off perhaps it is not as far off as we’d like to imagine.

It is interesting to consider what LaFargue thinks of as the “golden age of the laborer”:

 …let us listen to an Alsatian manufacturer, Mr. Th. Mieg, of the house of Dollfus, Mieg & Co., depicting the condition of the old-time artisan:

“At Mulhouse fifty years ago (in 1813, when modern mechanical industry was just arising) the laborers were all children of the soil, inhabiting the town and the surrounding villages, and almost all owning a house and often a little field.”

I am not exactly sure what makes this so promising or what about it would make it of particular interest to us. It seems like being “children of the soil” has its own problems. Lack of proper mechanical equipment for easier and quicker work being done. And you have a lot less control over your environment if you don’t have the best tools possible and are working with land instead of people. I’m not saying the capitalist workshop that LaFargue discusses “saved” these children of the soil from themselves or their labor. In fact I bet they could have developed their own particular methods and tools for their own wants and needs. But I still don’t think that makes it some sort of “golden age” in any sense. Perhaps if LaFargue is just speaking relatively to the conditions he sees in his day then I could understand more. But if he is LaFargue is not making that clear.

Take a look now at this:

A great number, – says Villermé – five thousand out of seventeen thousand, were obliged by high rents to lodge in neighboring villages. Some of them lived three or four miles from the factory where they worked.

At Mulhouse in Dornach, work began at five o’clock in the morning and ended at eight o’clock in the evening, summer and winter. It was a sight to watch them arrive each morning into the city and depart each evening. Among them were a multitude of women, pale, often walking bare-footed through the mud, and who for lack of umbrellas when the rain or snow fell, wore their aprons or skirts turned up over their heads. There was a still larger number of young children, equally dirty, equally pale, covered with rags, greasy from the machine oil which drops on them while they work. They were better protected from the rain because their clothes shed water; but unlike the women just mentioned, they did not carry their day’s provisions in a basket, but they carried in their hands or hid under their clothing as best they might, the morsel of bread which must serve them as food until time for them to return home.

Thus to the strain of an insufferably long day – at least fifteen hours – is added for these wretches the fatigue of the painful daily journeys. Consequently they reach home overwhelmed by the need of sleep, and next day they rise before they are completely rested in order to reach the factory by the opening time.

Reading this I was fairly disturbed. And what’s worse is that I can totally believe it. The idea that this sort of thing could’ve existed and did shouldn’t be something I should so readily be able to believe but it is. The children of the soil being dispossed of their property and tools and land what other choice would they have had? What sort of options would they have had? To me it seems like they would not have had much power and from everything involving their living conditions, to the sort of work they did and how long they did it it doesn’t seem that way.

LeFargue denounces this all as the “abortion of the revolutionary principles of the bourgeoisie”. This is their notion of Progress fully realized and achieved and instead of being vilified it is hailed as a “savior” of the poor. Something that keeps them (barely) alive and being a “productive” member of society.

Given all of this (and more that I’ve excluded because it feels redundant at this point to keep citing how awful work was then) perhaps LaFargue isn’t too far off when he says:

Far better were it 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.

Before I was not sure about LaFargue’s very strong claims about work but given these situations that he gives and continues to give via L.R. Villermé and his observations of how the working poor lived as well as the quotes coming from people in position of authority, power and influence it seems like LaFargue may have not been as off as I had originally thought. Especially if this situation that L.R. describes it not only not just a single case but the norm of a given geographic location in Europe. That would certainly make it a century of misery.

The economists claim that their work will increase their “social wealth” is a claim that is still repeated to this day. If you want to be valued, you must work. If you want to be respected, you must work. If you want to live at all, you are most likely going to have to work. And none of this work will be on your terms or really be able to be controlled by you in any real sense. That is, unless you make the time for questioning and rebellion. But really, with sixteen hour work days in awful conditions, who has that sort of time anyways?

A reverend Mr. Townshed is particularly honest about this:

Work, work, night and day. By working you make your poverty increase and your poverty releases us from imposing work upon you by force of law. The legal imposition of work “gives too much trouble, requires too much violence and makes too much noise. Hunger, on the contrary, is not only a pressure which is peaceful, silent and incessant, but as it is the most natural motive for work and industry, it also provokes to the most powerful efforts.

One part past that that bothers me is this from LaFargue himself (emphasis added):

The proletarians, brutalized by the dogma of work, not understanding that the over-work…

I have a bit of a hard time suggesting that somehow most proletarians didn’t understand what was going on. It seems to me to be a slight sign of elitism or infantalizing of the proles on LaFargue’s part. I mean, how does he know that they don’t understand what’s going on? It’s totally possible that they do in fact understand the situation but just aren’t sure how to get out of it. Or that some of them do and some do not. I don’t really feel as if LaFargue could possibly know what all of the proletariat understands and what it doesn’t. Perhaps in a given small community or among individuals he has personally met or seen he could make such assessments. But LaFargue is going way past that and speaking for others and their understanding of their own life strikes me as a remarkably unhelpful way to prove your point about something. Like I said, it just makes you come off as if you know what’s best for others or that you are so much smarter and better than they are. It reeks of elitism and condescension to me.

LaFargue continues not only arguing that he knows better but that he also can dictate how they should be responding if they did actually understand their situation (which apparently they are too stupid to? seems a bit classist of LaFargue…). He practically gives them a few tactics that they would do, situations they would take advantage of and so on. All of this seems a bit Ivory Tower to me. Who is LaFargue to say what the proles would be saying or would be doing if they cared. It is possible to care and to not act, isn’t it? It is possible to care but not have the means to effectively communicate this care, right? It is possible to care but care in counter-productive ways, right? It seems like there are plenty of easily imaginable situations that make LaFargue’s comments here not only utterly ridiculous but highly condescending and elitist.

Most of the rest of the post is a discussion about financial crises and how they relate to the phenomenon of work, how the manufacturers and the other big capitalist players in the marketplace effect the governments around them (though he seems to underplay the government’s role in such a transaction).

Here though we get to the most important part of the remaining paragraphs:

These individual and social miseries, however great and innumerable they may be, however eternal they appear, will vanish like hyenas and jackals at the approach of the lion, when the proletariat shall say “I will”. But to arrive at the realization of its strength 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. It must accustom itself to working but three hours a day, reserving the rest of the day and night for leisure and feasting.

There are a lot of different things going on here.

For one thing it should be clear by now that although some of the bourgeoisie ideals speak to LaFargue he ultimately wants them reformed or taken up again by the proletariat and not the bourgeois themselves who I am sure he does not trust. Nor does he trust those who peach the ethics of Christianity or the ethics of economics (didn’t Marx do economics? I mean I know he didn’t do “capitalist” economics but broadly this term doesn’t make sense to me) and interestingly he also does not like “free thought” but I am guessing he is just talking about the way the bourgeois uses it.

In any case the Rights of Laziness should conquer the Rights of Man and anything concocted by lawyers of the bourgeoisie which will result in a nice three hours in a given day (where does he get this exact number?) and the rest is for leisure and feasting. Either way it sounds great to me.

Interestingly LaFargue considers his next task to prove how the means of production can be seized not for better work but for better consumption and so in a way LaFargue seems to be a fan of “consumerism” at least in a certain sense. We’ll get into that in the next chapter though.

Overall this chapter was probably the best yet with vivid detail of how work actually functioned in LaFargue’s time as well as statements from authorities on how work should be utilized to oppress the proletariat. That’s all pretty good stuff. But the digs at the proletariat often seem unnecessary and eventually just seem to bear out elitism and condescension on LaFargue’s part. It really just seems to hurt his case more than build it back up. I also feel like LaFargue gives too little credit to the state in terms of the relationships with the manufactures who ask them to annex certain countries. I am fairly certain those manufacturers do not have armies and bombs and so on. So while I am not necessarily saying the state is more powerful to pretend like they are on the defensive here seems short-sighted to me.

So a mixed chapter but more good stuff than bad despite my gripes.

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