Home > Uncategorized > Utopia and the right to be lazy (3 charts)

Utopia and the right to be lazy (3 charts)

David Ruccio

Students are much too busy to think these days. So, when a junior comes to talk with me about the possibility of my directing their senior thesis, I ask them about their topic—and then their schedule. I explain to them that, if they really want to do a good project, they’re going to have to quit half the things they’re involved in.

They look at me as if I’m crazy. “Really?! But I’ve signed up for all these interesting clubs and volunteer projects and intramural sports and. . .” I then patiently explain that, to have the real learning experience of a semester or year of independent study, they need time, a surplus of time. They need to have the extra time in their lives to get lost in the library or to take a break with a friend, to read and to daydream. In other words, they need to have the right to be lazy.

So does everyone else.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what Paul LaFargue argued, in a scathing attack on the capitalist work ethic, “The Right To Be Lazy,” back in 1883.

Capitalist ethics, a pitiful parody on Christian ethics, strikes with its anathema the flesh of the laborer; its ideal is 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.

And LaFargue criticized both economists (who “preach to us the Malthusian theory, the religion of abstinence and the dogma of work”) and workers themselves (who invited the “miseries of compulsory work and the tortures of hunger” and need instead 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”). 


Today, nothing seems to have changed. Workers (or at least those who claim to champion the cause of workers) demand high-paying jobs and full employment, while mainstream economists (from Casey Mulligan, John Taylor, and Greg Mankiwto Dani Rodrick and Brad DeLong) promote what they consider to be the dignity of work and worry that, even as the official unemployment rate has declined in recent years, the labor-force participation rate in the United States has fallen dramatically and remains much too low.

Mainstream economists and their counterparts in the world of politics and policymaking—both liberals and conservatives—never cease to preach the virtues of work and in every domain, from minimum-wage legislation to economic growth, seek to promote more people getting more jobs to perform more work.

hours worked

This is particularly true in the United States and the United Kingdom, where the “work ethic” remains particularly strong. The number of hours worked per year has fallen in all advanced countries since the middle of the twentieth century but, as is clear from the chart above, in comparison with France and Germany, the average has declined by much less in America and Britain.


Today, according to the OECD, American and British workers spend much more time working per year (1765 and 1675 hours, respectively) than their French and German counterparts (1474 and 1371 hours, respectively).

But in all four countries—and, really, across the entire world—the capitalist work ethic prevails. Workers are exhorted to search for or keep their jobs, even as wage increases fall far short of productivity growth, inequality (already obscene) continues to rise, new forms of automation threaten to displace or destroy a wage range of occupations, unions and other types of worker representation have been undermined, and digital work increasingly permeates workers’ leisure hours.

The world of work, already satirized by LaFargue and others in the nineteenth century, clearly no longer works.

Not surprisingly, the idea of a world without work has returned. According to Andy Beckett, a new generation of utopian academics and activists are imagining a “post-work” future.

Post-work may be a rather grey and academic-sounding phrase, but it offers enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled – in short, that much of human experience would be transformed.

To many people, this will probably sound outlandish, foolishly optimistic – and quite possibly immoral. But the post-workists insist they are the realists now. “Either automation or the environment, or both, will force the way society thinks about work to change,” says David Frayne, a radical young Welsh academic whose 2015 book The Refusal of Work is one of the most persuasive post-work volumes. “So are we the utopians? Or are the utopians the people who think work is going to carry on as it is?”

I’m willing to keep the utopian label for the post-work thinkers precisely because they criticize the world of work—as neither natural nor particularly old—and extend that critique to the dictatorial powers and assumptions of modern employers, thus opening a path to consider other ways of organizing the world of work. Most importantly, post-work thinking creates the possibility of criticizing the labor involved in exploitation and thus of creating the conditions whereby workers no longer need to succumb to or adhere to the distinction between necessary and surplus labor.

In this sense, the folks working toward a post-work future are the contemporary equivalent of the “communist physiologists, hygienists and economists” LaFargue hoped would be able to

convince the proletariat that the ethics inoculated into it is wicked, that the unbridled work to which it has given itself up for the last hundred years is the most terrible scourge that has ever struck humanity, that work will become a mere condiment to the pleasures of idleness, a beneficial exercise to the human organism, a passion useful to the social organism only when wisely regulated and limited to a maximum of three hours a day; this is an arduous task beyond my strength.

That’s the utopian impulse inherent in the right to be lazy.


  1. Susan Feiner
    January 24, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    I’ve been saying for years that sloth needs to be removed from the list of deadly sins. More Sloth!

    • January 24, 2018 at 10:11 pm

      “What is this world, if full of care
      We have no time to stand and stare …”.

      • January 24, 2018 at 10:15 pm


  2. January 24, 2018 at 10:07 pm

    Bravo for this!

    As I look at the transformations in PhD programs since I signed on in 1971 I see willfully complicit faculty, loading students up with short-term matters (to use polite words), generally to do with that faculty-member’s income or other needs.

    The result – to have more or less extinguished the student’s opportunities to ‘get lost in the stacks’ – or on some esoteric websites – an essential if they are ever to do any thinking themselves. The same issue as concerns educators about our children’s loss of ‘wonder’ as they spend hours and hours on their intoxitoys.

    This kind of ‘wonder work’ is crucial to intellectual progress, especially in disciplines dominated by faculty totally committed to failed programs. Actually, being no economist, I am not talking about economics – though I understand that might apply.

    • Robert Locke
      January 25, 2018 at 8:24 am

      When I was a young history professor my mentor told me, “stop reading, do some out of the window research,” meaning sit in your chair gazing out the window and think about the meaning of what you have read.

      • January 25, 2018 at 9:24 am

        And the university (administrators) let you get away with that?

      • January 25, 2018 at 3:53 pm

        Excellent suggestion.

      • Robert Locke
        January 25, 2018 at 4:37 pm

        My mentor also said, 10 years after retiring, thet he had spent those 10 years buying the work of young painters in so. calif. and contemplating their work. And that he had never learned so much in his life as during these 10 years,

        The result of the out of the window research was lots of publications, which my colleagues, who were researching all the time did not produce, because they were not assemalating their research.

  3. Craig
    January 24, 2018 at 11:05 pm

    What we need is leisure which is self determined attentive activity…NOT idleness, sloth etc.

    Leisure collectively would get us a lot more things like art, innovation, in all likelihood scientific breakthrough, with a modicum of enablement and encouragement a chance at developing a culture of contemplation and a load of other positive human fruits that might help us express our actual species designation of homo sapiens, i.e. wise and discerning man…instead of the failed and enforced experiment of homo economicus.

    And a paradigm change in the economic and monetary system could make leisure and its fruits a virtual fait accompli.


  4. January 25, 2018 at 7:57 am

    Comparatively speaking the “work ethic” society is very new in the history of Sapiens. Sapiens have been “modern” for only a tiny fraction of human history; all human societies have been traditional (hunter-gatherer) far longer than any society has been modern. And hunter-gather ways of life are superior in many ways to anything modernity has to offer. In some respects, we moderns are misfits; our bodies and our practices now face conditions different from those under which they evolved, and to which they became adapted. Traditional societies represent thousands of millennia-long natural experiments in organizing Sapiens’ lives. In his book, “The World Before Yesterday,” Jared Diamond describes hunter-gatherer life before modernity tainted it. From studying remaining hunter-gatherer societies (bands or tribes), Diamond reaches some interesting conclusions. The “alpha male” archetype has apparently come from studying ancient humans, but Diamond’s data tells a different story. Men are reluctant to engage in that type of behavior, doing so only as necessity to survive, not to feel alpha. While men who were warriors had more children, it’s apparent that even beta males who excelled at weaving, for example, got their slice of the sexual pie. Only in modern times do beta males seem to be nearly shut out from procreation. There is also absolutely no sign of individuality which we may take for granted as a rightful human condition. In fact, tribal life is downright socialistic. The pooling and sharing of resources was needed not just for physical survival but to maintain tribe cohesion. Plants don’t move around and can be gathered predictably from one day to the next, but animals do move, so that any individual hunter risks bagging no animal on any given day. The solution to that uncertainty adopted almost universally by hunter-gatherers is to live in bands including several hunters who pool their catch to average out the large day-to-day fluctuations in catch for each individual hunter. “Food is never consumed alone by a family; it is always (actually or potentially) shared out with members of a living group or band of up to 30 (or more) members. Even though only a fraction of the able-bodied foragers go out each day, the day’s returns of meat and gathered foods are divided in such a way that every member of the camp receives an equitable share.

    Diamond also makes several observations on traditional human living arrangements. Traditional humans, ancestors all organized and evolved to avoid famine. Therefore, the human body is great at extracting most of the energy from food, leading to obesity in times of plenty. Our kidneys are powerful at retaining salt, a rare commodity in ancient times, leading to hypertension today. Our body perfectly adapted to survive the conditions of how the traditionals lived, but now that we have been removed from this environment, we encounter a host of “Modern” diseases that are unheard of in traditional societies. Those of us whose ancestors best survived starvation on Africa’s savannahs tens of thousands of years ago are now the ones at highest risk of dying from diabetes linked to food abundance. Returning to the traditional lifestyle seems a good suggestion for humans today.

  5. January 25, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    As a long-time business manager and consultant for architectural and engineering firms, one of my commissions had been to design a cost accounting and project budgeting system for A&Es. I had sat in one client’s main drafting room, gazing out the window and daydreaming about various approaches, all day long, day after day. Hadn’t yet written down a thing. Part of the daydreaming even involved reflecting on one of George Lucas’s movies, which gave me an idea about devising a system of predictive project budgeting that helped control costs and raise returns, and that is still in use.

    • Craig
      January 25, 2018 at 6:23 pm

      Yes, or as Whitman wrote: “I loaf and invite my soul.”

    • January 25, 2018 at 9:58 pm

      @intravers1 – Apologies, my comment below – Jan 25 6:28 was not a slap at your Jan 25 5:42 – to the contrary, your comments made me reflect on my own failure/s to explain my life’s Aha! moments.

  6. January 25, 2018 at 6:28 pm

    A curious thing. The stories we tell about ‘loafing and souling’ are remarkably un-compelling to others. The essence is the experience. Which reminds me of John Keats’s ‘negative capability’ – what he surmised was the essence of the poet’s task, to enter into/absorb others’ experiences and open them up to others.

    • Craig
      January 25, 2018 at 8:07 pm

      Yes, the internal conscious experience of fully comprehending a new paradigm as the new single concept that entirely fits within and yet transcends the current old paradigm’s primacy….is an “Ah ha!” cognitive experience, not just a data point, theory or even philosophy all of which are merely intellectual modes and methods that can leave one staring right at the new paradigm…but not fully comprehending its significance.

      And not seeing that…is also a major reason why the various heterodox researchers do not seem to be able/willing to unite even with themselves…let alone unite under a genuine new paradigm…which again, is a tremendously clarifying, unitary and focusing “thing”.

  7. January 26, 2018 at 1:02 am

    DFR, Craig, and Spender: (1) David, with so many quite good data abounding virtually every week to discriminating analysts, your “Real-World Economics Review” is aptly focused; so I invite you to Skype on my Econ series, where we track and relate elements of economic performance versus theory and conjecture; for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGIHo14g5LI (2) Craig: insights come from everywhere, huh! (3) spender7: No offense taken, and let’s all do our level best to comprehend reality as rationally as we can, and only then proceed with conclusions and opinions; as is said, ‘You can’t insult an honest person,’ anyway.

  8. Craig
    January 26, 2018 at 4:17 am


    Relatively small, fragmentary and incremental insights come from evidence and logic and science. Huge insights and progress come from new paradigm perception and then aligning policy with it. And historically that perception involves using integrative mental disciplines other than mere science and other reductionist methods. Why fight or refuse to utilize history, those other methods and rapid progress?

  9. January 27, 2018 at 9:23 am

    I believe in the necessity and dignity of work, so long as it gets a minimum wage (the miniumum required to keep you alive based on notion of universal human rights. Everyone has a right to a living or minimum wage–enough so you can make to to work again tomorrow. All HuMans are equal but some are more equal than others—so some people get more than the minimum—they get the maximum, or the 1% percentile. . )

    This debate occurs between advocates of a UBI and MMT people who want ‘a universal job guarantee’ . MMT people feel strongly about poverty, but dont believe people should just get free stuff–you should work like MMT people do –eg give a speech at a conference. Few people are competent to do that, so instead the guaranteed jobs might instead be working on the plantations owned by MMT’ers. They’ll prasie you too–benevolant masters.

    I have to work 3 jobs to survive–day job, evening job, and nite job. I am trying to get at least 40$/hr for the day and evening shifts, and 1000$/hr for nite job–because that is when i am most productive. I get ‘machine dreams’, ‘tangerine dreams’, etc at nite. I work harder dreaming than Trump does at the white house.

    • Craig
      January 27, 2018 at 5:54 pm

      Constructive purpose is the human necessity. Work for pay AKA employment is a very small subset of possible such purposes. MMT has the mechanics of money creation correct, but its stance on employment still resides largely within the current paradigm of Debt Only. This is evidenced by some of its advocates’ disparaging of a UBI/universal dividend. Of course their advocacy of a job guarantee could easily fit within the new paradigm of Monetary Gifting, but rejection of the direct gift of UBI/UD betrays that they haven’t fully crossed over into visualizing the new paradigm.

  10. Edward Ross
    January 28, 2018 at 7:23 am

    David Ruccio January 24:2018
    To agree with your first two paragraphs except the last sentence”. In other words they need to have the right to be lazy’. Apart from the ambiguity of this the term lazy what would make more sense to me would be ,they need to have the time to stop and think. This raises the important question have they learned how to think. From my observation and experience a growing number of Real World Economic Review bloggers and posts are concerned with the education system that is not teaching students how to think constructively. Here I would suggest without learning how to think and evaluate various possibilities dreaming could be destructive not constructive.

    What I regard as a good guide towards thinking is that of Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics The Users Guide where he writes “I try to explain to my readers how to think rather than what to think.”

    Then their is Susan Feiner’s post “more sloth’, somehow I wonder if she is just enjoying a relaxing day dream or is she endeavouring to promote real discussion on the importance of a little day dreaming to refresh the mind and recharge ones batteries.

    Then intravers1 January25 , 2018 5:42 pm

    spender 7 January 25, 2018 at 6:23pm

    Craig January 24 2018 at 11pm and his line ” What we need is leisure what is self determined attentive activity not idleness, sloth etc”

    Then Mart Malakoff January 27 at 9:23 pm believe in the dignity of work so long as it gets a minimum of wage required to keep you alive based on a notion of universal human rights”.

    The problem I have with that is that under the present neoliberal political economic system that is driven by the extreme greedy capitalists their version of a minimum just wage is very different from what is needed in a privatised world of essential services that have become the cash cows for ruthless cooperation’s.
    Now back to David Ruccio first paragraphs where he stresses the need for students to have time to get lost in the library or take a break with a friend and day dream. Again from experience I would suggest that the only thing that keeps many of the disadvantaged going is that they dream of better days ahead. Here in Australia where many farmers have experienced continuous droughts and their farms being taken over by the banks’ their dreams have been shattered and as a result they have taken their own life.

    Again I return to Craig January 25 2018 at 6:25pm ” loaf and invite my soul”;

    Perhaps I am boring some but I would like to share with Craig is at one period back in the 1950s I was employed as a seaman on a small wooden trading scow in New Zealand still relied mainly on sail, but could also load and unload on a beach. I often did I night watch on my own with instructions to call the old skipper if anything concerned. on a clear night it was often easier to steer by the stars than have a light on the compass The only noise was the occasional creak of the rigging . The result was while remaining alert for the small ship one could wonder about the infinity of the universe as one
    followed the stars which I found very pacifying and good for the soul leaving on with a clear mind.

    • January 28, 2018 at 2:07 pm

      Indeed indeed, there is little to compare with sailing at night under a clear sky. I am missing this – sold my sailboat earlier this year and bought a stink-pot. Not the same.

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