Fear of leisure

Bertrand Russell has written a good example. It involves making pins. In this example, there is a factory producing pins for the world. People work eight hours a day. Then a new technological invention enters the scene. The number of finished pins can be doubled in the same amount of time! Work would only have to be done for four hours a day. But in the end, some of them are fired and the four-hour working day does not materialise. Russell makes the point that leisure time increases equally in both cases, but in the latter case the half condemned to idleness is faced with leisure time that produces suffering not happiness. Russell asks – and rightly so, I would point out – is it possible to imagine anything more sickly? To cap it all, Russell says that, if anything, the rich have always feared that the poor would have leisure at their disposal. (Russell 1999/1932, 178-179.)

Elsewhere in an interesting essay, Russell writes about the perverse view, and he does this as early as 1932, that people will admit that the little free time they have is very nice, but that they wouldn’t know what to do with it all if they had to work only four hours a day. To this Russell argues that no such problem existed in the past for humanity, which understood lightness of mind and play. Efficiency thinking has destroyed that. If man does not know what to do with his increased leisure time, it is a rebuke to society (Russell 1999/1932, 183-184.)

Of course, such an arrogant claim that people in the old days knew how to relax raises objections. I don’t think Russell intended to deny all the harshness of life that has been associated with the past, but he is on to something more than many would like to admit. After all, medieval peasants worked less than people today. Even in more recent times, the number of hours worked has increased from 69 000 hours in 1981 to around 80 000 hours today for the British, for example (Wheen 2009, 78-79). Of course, I am relying on sources here, as I have not personally been there with a stopwatch to measure this. But if anything can be deduced from the current work rant, the above claims are probably not far from the truth. Our ”pin factory” has probably undergone several technological innovations, but there is still no sign of the kingdom of freedom.

When talking about technology, many people always end up repeating the old mantra that development always brings new jobs. Perhaps so, but it is very difficult to see that all these new jobs are in any way meaningful or even necessary. David Graeber’s book Bullshit jobs: a theory, for example, is a very good book to help clarify this. Can’t we really work shorter days and then do whatever we want in our free time? What is so glorious about turning every second into working time? Work in its present form has already begun to take over humanity as such, but that is what we call progress! Indeed, if there is one thing this society needs, it is a healthy criticism of the present order of work, because it threatens to destroy us. But apparently this is not the case now, for one reason or another. As I said: the rich have always feared that the poor would have free time. And if you don’t like the terms, then by all means change them to your liking, for example, capitalist and worker. As such, the point remains the same. After all, the duty involved in this matter, too, has historically always been a means for those in power to force the people to live in the interests of their masters rather than in their own interests. (Russell 1999/1932, 177).

I deliberately write about the current order of the work, because the work as such has had many different orders throughout history. There is no need to repeat them here. But I would like to conclude by pointing out something that makes the current order of the work so extraordinarily funny, but at the same time tragic. Illich has written aptly about how in the Middle Ages there was no salvation outside the church. Theologians, we are told, had a great deal of trouble explaining what could have happened to the virtuous and saintly pagans at the hands of God. Coming to modern times, no work seems to be productive unless it is done at the behest of the boss. Now it is not the theologians who have to explain themselves, but the economists who have to struggle with the apparent utility of human beings, even if they are not inside the labour camp or in any business or voluntary organisation. ”Work is productive, valued and worthy of the citizen only if the work process is planned, directed and supervised by an expert who guarantees that the work meets a formal need in a standardized way” (Illich 1999/1978, 170.) In other words, for the so-called powers-that-be, it is a major problem that people can actually do something useful in their free time. Something that is not directly under the command of capital, so that this leisure time must be given as little as possible and as few resources as possible must be given to use it. Can we not repeat Russell’s words about whether there is anything sicker? We have the technological capacity to organise human life in a reasonably orderly fashion, to distribute work so that no one is starved of it or, conversely, forced into a state of idleness where ’freedom’ is nothing but austerity. But that is not what we are doing. The question is simply: why? 

I was going to stop here, but I can’t resist quoting Russell one more time. He does a good job of describing what the First World War revealed. Although large numbers of people were transferred to various wartime jobs, Russell writes: ”Nevertheless, the physical well-being of untrained wage-earners was better on the side of the Allied Powers than before or after the war.” This phenomenon was then attempted to cover up. It was said that borrowing only made the situation look as if the future was feeding the present. However, Russell rightly points out that you cannot eat bread that has not been baked. (Russell 1999/1932.) Loans, interest, all of it, in the end, is nothing physical, nothing that does this or that. They are social networks that tighten around their object.


The sources I have used have been translated into Finnish. So translations back into English may be incorrect in relation to the original text. However, I have tried to check that the message is not changed.


Illich Ivan 1978. Teoksesta Oikeus hyödylliseen työttömyyteen. Teoksessa Matkaopas joutilaisuuteen. Toim. Hodkingson Tom & de Abaitua Matthew.

Russell Bertrand 1999/1932. Joutilaisuuden ylistys. Teoksessa Matkaopas joutilaisuuteen. Toim. Hodkingson Tom & de Abaitua Matthew.

Wheen Francis 2009. Marxin Pääoma. Gummerus. Jyväskylä.