Now, there’s a lot going on in this article. Gutting makes some great points about leisure, work and the nature of capitalism. But he also makes some mistakes on all three of these things as well. In order to make this article a bit more accessible I’ll split it up my analysis into three topics: Work, Leisure and Markets vs. Capitalism.
Gutting makes some great observations early in his article:
Even apart from current worries, the goodness of work is deep in our culture. We applaud people for their work ethic, judge our economy by its productivity and even honor work with a national holiday.
But there’s an underlying ambivalence: we celebrate Labor Day by not working, the Book of Genesis says work is punishment for Adam’s sin, and many of us count the days to the next vacation and see a contented retirement as the only reason for working.
This tension of work is ever present in culture. Even in popular culture you have sitcoms about the overworked father who never gets to spend time with his kids. And how this often drives families apart or creates big conflicts between work and the life you want to live with those you love.
In more independent films like Clerks you’ll focus on the lives of average wage-workers who dislike what they do and make no bones about it. Similarly you can also find this in a movie like Slacker or A Thousand Clowns.
But in both cases people will exalt work or at least act as if it’s necessary. Even Clerks doesn’t really tell us much about whether work itself such, just that working at a convenience store can suck. And as someone who worked in a convenience store for almost 6 months (granted in present day, not in the 90s), it can definitely be a drag.
The trouble with work then, is that we treat it as merely a means to an ends. But not a desirable end in of itself.
As Gutting explains,
We’re ambivalent about work because in our capitalist system it means work-for-pay (wage-labor), not for its own sake. It is what philosophers call an instrumental good, something valuable not in itself but for what we can use it to achieve. For most of us, a paying job is still utterly essential — as masses of unemployed people know all too well. But in our economic system, most of us inevitably see our work as a means to something else: it makes a living, but it doesn’t make a life.
I’ve talked about this before when I discussed teleology and laziness. In it, I discuss the interrelation between framing whatever you’re doing as ends in of themselves and how leisure can help us get there. In other words, when you work you’re usually not doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for the rent or something external that you want to buy.
And I’m not saying doing that is immoral or that it’s a particularly good idea to judge people who do this. All I’m suggesting is that if people want to have a more fulfilling life they’re likely going to want to minimize things that heighten their sense of lacking purpose. Unfortunately work often does this by making us repeatedly engage in something that, even when we enjoy it, eventually becomes repetitive.
And through this repetition of tasks that you’d normally enjoy you feel less and less enthused about it. It eventually becomes a mechanical process you just do rather than something that you can make your own. This comes from the lack of control we often have at our jobs because of the hierarchical nature of the current wage-system.
Leisure (With a special shout out to boredom)
What then is the solution for the many vices of work?
Gutting suggests an Aristotelian view of work, “…we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” Which, as Gutting remarks, sounds absurd. But here “work” can mean any number of things and so can the term leisure.
As a sidenote, Gutting questions how we could really use leisure since it’s possible leisure could just lead us to boredom.
But here, Gutting makes a mistake in not thinking about how we can positively view boredom (also see here) as well. Boredom doesn’t have to be the absence of happiness or of happiness in whatever you’re doing. Instead, we can see boredom as a transitional way to taking joy in whatever you do next.
It can be a time to rest, pause and consider your options.
To be fair, there are times when boredom isn’t pleasant and surely people who are chronically bored aren’t going to enjoy themselves. But for most of us, being bored is just a time in between doing something and doing nothing. And that transitional time doesn’t necessarily need to be a time to stew in our emotions and feel bad.
Instead, we can use the time we have to ponder, plan, consider, think and frame things in the future differently than we might’ve otherwise.
Under this view, we can see boredom as an opportunity to simply enjoy the present and try to plan better for the future or just simply try to enjoy having nothing particularly interesting going on at the time. That’s not necessarily always a bad thing.
Another way of putting it Gutting puts it is, “…productive activity enjoyed for its own sake, while work is done for something else.”
We can pass by for now the question of just what activities are truly enjoyable for their own sake — perhaps eating and drinking, sports, love, adventure, art, contemplation? The point is that engaging in such activities — and sharing them with others — is what makes a good life.
Leisure, not work, should be our primary goal.
I don’t want to pass over this question though. I think it’s an important thing to identify what we might specifically have in mind when we talk about activities we’d rather have than work.
I believe that the activities that are enjoyable for their own sake are going to depend on the individuals. And so I don’t think there’s any activity that we all enjoy for their own sake. I’m not necessarily claiming Gutting thinks anything differently but I think it’s important to emphasize regardless.
To take Gutting’s examples head on: Some folks don’t really enjoy eating or drinking and just do it to maintain themselves (e.g. people who like meal squares or Soylent). Other people are aromantic or can’t appreciate art or are too nervous for adventure. And some people think that contemplation is overrated in one respect or another.
Given all of this, I don’t think there’s going to be universals here. I don’t think Gutting or anyone else can point to some sort of leisurely standard or base starting point. So what does that leave us with? Not in such a bad place, I think.
Because we can simply look at what people do in their spare time. Do they write? See friends? Do they talk all night about political philosophy? Do they go out to parties? And so on and so forth. You can often tell what people really care about when the restraints that once bound them are no longer a factor.
But the good news is that Gutting at least thinks we should make leisure and not work our goal. And that’s certainly a praiseworthy position in my view.
So Kudos for that, Mr. Gutting.
Gutting uses Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness as a means of further framing leisure:
Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before.
Gutting summarizes that Russell believes we merely engage in work due to prejudices about work being meaningful in of itself. Whereas Gutting and Aristotle would argue that work is only useful in the sense that it leads to leisure.
Here, I have a disagreement.
As far as I understand it work is either being used to describe
- Giving effort (perhaps a lot of it or too much)
- Wage-labor that one engages in for the sake of the wage and not the labor
These are all different things and I think Gutting could’ve done a better job untangling.
Nevertheless, I certainly appreciate the third definition, especially as it reminds me of the post-Marxist Andre Gorz and his “work for economic-ends“:
This is work done with payment in mind. Here money, that is, commodity exchange, is the principal goal. One works first of all to `earn a living’, and the satisfaction or pleasure one may possibly derive from such work is a subordinate consideration.
As I’ve stated before, this is the type of work I’d like to see abolished.
So long as Gutting is talking about 1. then I can get behind, perhaps to some limited extent, work being for the sake of leisure.
But I suspect he’s after 3. much more often throughout this article. And in that sense I simply can’t abide by an economy that, even minimally, flourishes because people are systematically sacrificing their self-interest for other things.
Speaking of systems that do that, let’s talk capitalism.
Capitalism vs. Markets
Gutting has some criticisms of Russell’s idea of leisure:
He assumes that the only reason to continue working eight hours a day would be to make more pins, which we don’t need. In modern capitalism, however, the idea would be to make better pins (or perhaps something even better than pins), in that way improving the quality of our lives.
Suppose that in 1932, when Russell wrote his essay, we had followed his advice and converted all gains in productivity into increased leisure. Antibiotics, jet airplanes and digital computers, then just glimmers on the horizon, would likely never have become integral parts of our lives. We can argue about just what constitutes real progress, but it’s clear that Russell’s simple proposal would sometimes mean trading quality of life for more leisure.
First passage is first, planned obsolescence is a pretty well known phenomenon. Contemporary anarchist writer and thinker Kevin Carson has also wrote about this in his Center for a Stateless Society study The Great Domain of Cost-Plus: The Waste Production Economy which details how mass production in a state-run economy leads to massive amounts of waste.
So I’m not seeing how “modern capitalism” has somehow outgrown the waste economy it once was. In fact, I am not sure how it hasn’t gotten even worse since Russell talked about it in his essay. Could Gutting or others explain?
To the second point, what would converting all gains into increased leisure even look like for Russell? What would it look like for Gutting? It’s not clear in any case from this article alone, so I’m not sure what we can really conclude about how Russell’s ideal society would look like in relation to Gutting’s.
And even if we had a solid idea of it, why would it necessarily be the case that we’d lose airplanes and the like? If we give people better technology to do the same amount of useful labor in less time, then I’d think we would get modern inventions much faster. Why? Because workers are less likely to be burnt out and are more likely to enjoy what they do. And that’s because they have more time to themselves and less repetitive tasks that’ll be less likely to bore them.
The next part of Gutting’s anti-capitalism criticism is, sadly, inept at getting to the heart of the matter:
But capitalism as such is not interested in quality of life. It is essentially a system for producing things to sell at a profit, the greater the better.
If products sell because they improve the quality of our life, well and good, but it doesn’t in the end matter why they sell. The system works at least as well if a product sells not because it is a genuine contribution to human well-being but because people are falsely persuaded that they should have it.
Often, in fact, it’s easier to persuade people to buy something that’s inferior than it is to make something that’s superior. This is why stores are filled with products that cater to fads and insecurities but no real human need.
To take it passage by passage:
- “Profit” in an economic sense isn’t solely tied to capitalism. People under state-communist systems made some sort of economic profit, for example. It was just tied to whatever the state wanted that profit to be. This is a massive oversimplification of course, but my main point is that profit isn’t some defining feature of capitalism. It’s a defining feature of markets and these two things are different.
- Under any system it matters what people sell. That’s why we have protests, government regulations and restrictions, boycotts, labor unions and any number of responses to business practices we dislike. Sometimes these processes that we dislike aren’t economic but social (i.e. discrimination against queer folks) but in any case it seems unfair to say even under state-capitalism that it simply doesn’t matter if something improves the quality of life or not. Yes, it may matter less than it should and consumers may not have as much power as they should (ditto to the workers) to fight against bad practices, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.
- This last sentence really bothers me. Who is Gutting to decide what we as humans “need”? Where does he get the information, exactly, to determine what we “need” and what we don’t? How does he make these determinations? This just comes off to me as very paternalistic.
At any rate Gutting gives us capitalism’s answer to who decides this:
The capitalist system’s own answer is consumers , free to buy whatever they want in an open market. I call this capitalism’s own answer because it is the one that keeps the system operating autonomously, a law unto itself. It especially appeals to owners, managers and others with a vested interest in the system.
Historically, capitalism hasn’t been an “open market”, despite what proponents of it may want to say otherwise. There’s always been an iron fist behind the supposed invisible hand of capitalism. That said, I agree that this sort of definition most benefits the managers and others with a vested interest in capitalism itself. That’s largely because the supposed “law unto itself” that capitalism creates tends to benefit those in the best material positions.
In turn, those with the most material wealth have a much easier time being a part of the ruling class. They can engage in regulatory capture and generally collude with the state so that they can gain more power. Obviously, just being filthy rich doesn’t mean you personally are going to be in congress.
But it’s likely you’ll have a few lobbyists of your own that will talk to congress, at least every now and then.
Next, Gutting says:
But the answer is disingenuous.
From our infancy the market itself has worked to make us consumers, primed to buy whatever it is selling regardless of its relevance to human flourishing.
True freedom requires that we take part in the market as fully formed agents, with life goals determined not by advertising campaigns but by our own experience of and reflection on the various possibilities of human fulfillment.
Such freedom in turn requires a liberating education, one centered not on indoctrination, social conditioning or technical training but on developing persons capable of informed and intelligent commitments to the values that guide their lives.
I agree that the answer is disingenuous but that’s not because we should be suspicious of “open markets” per se’. It’s because we should be suspicious of such rhetoric when the corporations or capitalists say it. As Gutting said, they have a vested interest in giving such answers. But those same capitalists wouldn’t actually like the results of an actually open market.
This second sentence makes no sense to me. And again, Gutting is relying on a form of liberal paternalism that presumes all of us are blank slates and, once filled in with advertising, constantly seek out Burger King and McDonald’s with little to no self-control.
But as Ellen Willis wrote in Women and the Myth of Consumerism:
The pleasure of eating an ice cream cone may be minor compared to the pleasure of meaningful, autonomous work, but the former is easily available and the latter is not. A poor family would undoubtedly rather have a decent apartment than a new TV, but since they are unlikely to get the apartment, what is to be gained by not getting the TV?
No one really believes that smoking Brand X cigarettes will make you sexy. (The function of sex in an ad is probably the obvious one—to lure people into paying closer attention to the ad—rather than to make themidentifytheir lust with a product.
The chief effect of the heavy sexual emphasis in advertising has been to stimulate a national preoccupation with sex, showing that you can’t identify away a basic human drive as easily as all that.) Madison Avenue has increasingly de-emphasizedmotivationaltechniques in favor of aesthetic ones—TV commercials in particular have become incredibly inventive visually—and even made a joke out of the old motivational ploys (the phallic Virginia Slims ad, for instance, is  blatantly campy).
We can conclude from this that either the depth psychology approach never worked in the first place, or that it has stopped working as consumers have gotten more sophisticated.
Just to wrap things up here let’s finish with analyzing Gutting’s last two passages:
This is why, especially in our capitalist society, education must not be primarily for training workers or consumers (both tools of capitalism, as Marxists might say). Rather, schools should aim to produce self-determining agents who can see through the blandishments of the market and insist that the market provide what they themselves have decided they need to lead fulfilling lives. Capitalism, with its devotion to profit, is not in itself evil. But it becomes evil when it controls our choices for the sake of profit.
Capitalism works for the good only when our independent choices determine what the market must produce to make a profit. These choices — of liberally educated free agents — will set the standards of capitalist production and lead to a world in which, as Aristotle said, work is for the sake of leisure. We are, unfortunately, far from this ideal, but it is one worth working toward.
From what I gather, Gutting is some sort of social democrat who wants to reform capitalism. But as an anarchist I deny this is possible. Profit and leisure are both important parts of any market worth its salt, but not when the government has anything to do with it. And certainly not when we still have compulsory education and seek to somehow curve it into more democratic means.
Instead of doing that why don’t we try to strengthen already-existing alternatives like Sudbury schools?
Gutter is wrong that capitalism can somehow work for the good. When you have systems that inevitable benefit those at the top and those same people are able to appeal to a central authority (the state) then you have a system that is geared towards inequality, hierarchy, centralization and failure on many levels.
I agree that a world of leisure is worth striving towards.
But we shouldn’t do it through the state or capitalism.
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