Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More


Why must we all work long hours to earn the right to live? Why must only the wealthy have access to leisure, aes­thet­ic plea­sure, self-actu­al­iza­tion…? Every­one seems to have an answer, accord­ing to their polit­i­cal or the­o­log­i­cal bent. One eco­nom­ic bogey­man, so-called “trick­le-down” eco­nom­ics, or “Reaganomics,” actu­al­ly pre­dates our 40th pres­i­dent by a few hun­dred years at least. The notion that we must bet­ter ourselves—or sim­ply survive—by toil­ing to increase the wealth and prop­er­ty of already wealthy men was per­haps first com­pre­hen­sive­ly artic­u­lat­ed in the 18th-cen­tu­ry doc­trine of “improve­ment.” In order to jus­ti­fy pri­va­tiz­ing com­mon land and forc­ing the peas­antry into job­bing for them, Eng­lish land­lords attempt­ed to show in trea­tise after trea­tise that 1) the peas­ants were lazy, immoral, and unpro­duc­tive, and 2) they were bet­ter off work­ing for oth­ers. As a corol­lary, most argued that landown­ers should be giv­en the utmost social and polit­i­cal priv­i­lege so that their largesse could ben­e­fit every­one.

This scheme neces­si­tat­ed a com­plete rede­f­i­n­i­tion of what it meant to work. In his study, The Eng­lish Vil­lage Com­mu­ni­ty and the Enclo­sure Move­ments, his­to­ri­an W.E. Tate quotes from sev­er­al of the “improve­ment” trea­tis­es, many writ­ten by Puri­tans who argued that “the poor are of two class­es, the indus­tri­ous poor who are con­tent to work for their bet­ters, and the idle poor who pre­fer to work for them­selves.” Tate’s sum­ma­tion per­fect­ly artic­u­lates the ear­ly mod­ern rede­f­i­n­i­tion of “work” as the cre­ation of prof­it for own­ers. Such work is vir­tu­ous, “indus­tri­ous,” and leads to con­tent­ment. Oth­er kinds of work, leisure­ly, domes­tic, plea­sur­able, sub­sis­tence, or oth­er­wise, qualifies—in an Orwellian turn of phrase—as “idle­ness.” (We hear echoes of this rhetoric in the lan­guage of “deserv­ing” and “unde­serv­ing” poor.) It was this lan­guage, and its legal and social reper­cus­sions, that Max Weber lat­er doc­u­ment­ed in The Protes­tant Eth­ic and the Spir­it of Cap­i­tal­ism, Karl Marx react­ed to in Das Cap­i­tal, and fem­i­nists have shown to be a con­sol­i­da­tion of patri­ar­chal pow­er and fur­ther exclu­sion of women from eco­nom­ic par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Along with Marx, var­i­ous oth­ers have raised sig­nif­i­cant objec­tions to Protes­tant, cap­i­tal­ist def­i­n­i­tions of work, includ­ing Thomas Paine, the Fabi­ans, agrar­i­ans, and anar­chists. In the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, we can add two sig­nif­i­cant names to an already dis­tin­guished list of dis­senters: Buck­min­ster Fuller and Bertrand Rus­sell. Both chal­lenged the notion that we must have wage-earn­ing jobs in order to live, and that we are not enti­tled to indulge our pas­sions and inter­ests unless we do so for mon­e­tary prof­it or have inde­pen­dent wealth. In New York Times col­umn on Rus­sel­l’s 1932 essay “In Praise of Idle­ness,” Gary Gut­ting writes, “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.”

In far too many cas­es in fact, the work we must do to sur­vive robs us of the abil­i­ty to live by ruin­ing our health, con­sum­ing all our pre­cious time, and degrad­ing our envi­ron­ment. In his essay, Rus­sell argued that “there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is vir­tu­ous, and that what needs to be preached in mod­ern indus­tri­al coun­tries is quite dif­fer­ent from what has always been preached.” His “argu­ments for lazi­ness,” as he called them, begin with def­i­n­i­tions of what we mean by “work,” which might be char­ac­ter­ized as the dif­fer­ence between labor and man­age­ment:

What is work? Work is of two kinds: first, alter­ing the posi­tion of mat­ter at or near the earth’s sur­face rel­a­tive­ly to oth­er such mat­ter; sec­ond, telling oth­er peo­ple to do so. The first kind is unpleas­ant and ill paid; the sec­ond is pleas­ant and high­ly paid.

Rus­sell fur­ther divides the sec­ond cat­e­go­ry into “those who give orders” and “those who give advice as to what orders should be giv­en.” This lat­ter kind of work, he says, “is called pol­i­tics,” and requires no real “knowl­edge of the sub­jects as to which advice is giv­en,” but only the abil­i­ty to manip­u­late: “the art of per­sua­sive speak­ing and writ­ing, i.e. of adver­tis­ing.” Rus­sell then dis­cuss­es a “third class of men” at the top, “more respect­ed than either of the class­es of the workers”—the landown­ers, who “are able to make oth­ers pay for the priv­i­lege of being allowed to exist and to work.” The idle­ness of landown­ers, he writes, “is only ren­dered pos­si­ble by the indus­try of oth­ers. Indeed their desire for com­fort­able idle­ness is his­tor­i­cal­ly the source of the whole gospel of work. The last thing they have ever wished is that oth­ers should fol­low their exam­ple.”

The “gospel of work” Rus­sell out­lines is, he writes, “the moral­i­ty of the Slave State,” and the kinds of mur­der­ous toil that devel­oped under its rule—actual chat­tel slav­ery, fif­teen hour work­days in abom­inable con­di­tions, child labor—has been “dis­as­trous.” Work looks very dif­fer­ent today than it did even in Rus­sel­l’s time, but even in moder­ni­ty, when labor move­ments have man­aged to gath­er some increas­ing­ly pre­car­i­ous amount of social secu­ri­ty and leisure time for work­ing peo­ple, the amount of work forced upon the major­i­ty of us is unnec­es­sary for human thriv­ing and in fact counter to it—the result of a still-suc­cess­ful cap­i­tal­ist pro­pa­gan­da cam­paign: if we aren’t labor­ing for wages to increase the prof­its of oth­ers, the log­ic still dic­tates, we will fall to sloth and vice and fail to earn our keep. “Satan finds some mis­chief for idle hands to do,” goes the Protes­tant proverb Rus­sell quotes at the begin­ning of his essay. On the con­trary, he con­cludes,

…in a world where no one is com­pelled to work more than four hours a day, every per­son pos­sessed of sci­en­tif­ic curios­i­ty will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint with­out starv­ing, how­ev­er excel­lent his pic­tures may be. Young writ­ers will not be oblig­ed to draw atten­tion to them­selves by sen­sa­tion­al pot-boil­ers, with a view to acquir­ing the eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence for mon­u­men­tal works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capac­i­ty.

The less we are forced to labor, the more we can do good work in our idle­ness, and we can all labor less, Rus­sell argues, because “mod­ern meth­ods of pro­duc­tion have giv­en us the pos­si­bil­i­ty of ease and secu­ri­ty for all” instead of “over­work for some and star­va­tion for oth­ers.”

A few decades lat­er, vision­ary archi­tect, inven­tor, and the­o­rist Buck­min­ster Fuller would make exact­ly the same argu­ment, in sim­i­lar terms, against the “spe­cious notion that every­body has to earn a liv­ing.” Fuller artic­u­lat­ed his ideas on work and non-work through­out his long career. He put them most suc­cinct­ly in a 1970 New York mag­a­zine “Envi­ron­men­tal Teach-In”:

It is a fact today that one in ten thou­sand of us can make a tech­no­log­i­cal break­through capa­ble of sup­port­ing all the rest…. We keep invent­ing jobs because of this false idea that every­body has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, accord­ing to Malthu­sian-Dar­win­ian the­o­ry, he must jus­ti­fy his right to exist.

Many peo­ple are paid very lit­tle to do back­break­ing labor; many oth­ers paid quite a lot to do very lit­tle. The cre­ation of sur­plus jobs leads to redun­dan­cy, inef­fi­cien­cy, and the bureau­crat­ic waste we hear so many politi­cians rail against: “we have inspec­tors and peo­ple mak­ing instru­ments for inspec­tors to inspect inspectors”—all to sat­is­fy a dubi­ous moral imper­a­tive and to make a small num­ber of rich peo­ple even rich­er.

What should we do instead? We should con­tin­ue our edu­ca­tion, and do what we please, Fuller argues: “The true busi­ness of peo­ple should be to go back to school and think about what­ev­er it was they were think­ing about before some­body came along and told them they had to earn a liv­ing.” We should all, in oth­er words, work for our­selves, per­form­ing the kind of labor we deem nec­es­sary for our qual­i­ty of life and our social arrange­ments, rather than the kinds of labor dic­tat­ed to us by gov­ern­ments, landown­ers, and cor­po­rate exec­u­tives. And we can all do so, Fuller thought, and all flour­ish sim­i­lar­ly. Fuller called the tech­no­log­i­cal and evo­lu­tion­ary advance­ment that enables us to do more with less “euphe­mer­al­iza­tion.” In Crit­i­cal Path, a vision­ary work on human devel­op­ment, he claimed “It is now pos­si­ble to give every man, woman and child on Earth a stan­dard of liv­ing com­pa­ra­ble to that of a mod­ern-day bil­lion­aire.”

Sound utopi­an? Per­haps. But Fuller’s far-reach­ing path out of reliance on fos­sil fuels and into a sus­tain­able future has nev­er been tried, for some depress­ing­ly obvi­ous rea­sons and some less obvi­ous. Nei­ther Rus­sell nor Fuller argued for the abolition—or inevitable self-destruction—of cap­i­tal­ism and the rise of a work­ers’ par­adise. (Rus­sell gave up his ear­ly enthu­si­asm for com­mu­nism.) Nei­ther does Gary Gut­ting, a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Notre Dame, who in his New York Times com­men­tary on Rus­sell asserts that “Cap­i­tal­ism, with its devo­tion to prof­it, is not in itself evil.” Most Marx­ists on the oth­er hand would argue that devo­tion to prof­it can nev­er be benign. But there are many mid­dle ways between state com­mu­nism and our cur­rent reli­gious devo­tion to sup­ply-side cap­i­tal­ism, such as robust demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism or a basic income guar­an­tee. In any case, what most dis­senters against mod­ern notions of work share in com­mon is the con­vic­tion that edu­ca­tion should pro­duce crit­i­cal thinkers and self-direct­ed indi­vid­u­als, and not, as Gut­ting puts it, “be pri­mar­i­ly for train­ing work­ers or consumers”—and that doing work we love for the sake of our own per­son­al ful­fill­ment should not be the exclu­sive pre­serve of a prop­er­tied leisure class.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Charles Bukows­ki Rails Against 9‑to‑5 Jobs in a Bru­tal­ly Hon­est Let­ter (1986)

Every­thing I Know: 42 Hours of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Vision­ary Lec­tures Free Online (1975)

Bertrand Rus­sell: The Every­day Ben­e­fit of Phi­los­o­phy Is That It Helps You Live with Uncer­tain­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Em says:

    This is uncan­ny. Wak­ing up real­ly late today, at 8:30am, I tried to lift up my spir­its by… search­ing the inter­net for arti­cles prais­ing wast­ed time. The day did turn out to be a pro­duc­tive one, sur­pris­ing­ly, but I am going to go to bed think­ing of what Bertrand Rus­sell has to say about the dig­ni­ty of work!

  • Vanessa says:

    It is clear­ly wrong for any class of peo­ple to oppress anoth­er class and/or to claim it is their right to do so, for any rea­son. It is also clear­ly wrong for any class of peo­ple to claim that they are enti­tled to be tak­en care of by anoth­er class…unless they are lit­er­al­ly unable to do so, as is the case with chil­dren and men­tal­ly or phys­i­cal­ly hand­i­capped peo­ple. That leaves the respon­si­bil­i­ty on the rest of us to car­ry our own weight so as not to be a bur­den to any­one else, as well as to con­tribute to the com­mon good. Those who only care for them­selves may be in a neu­tral posi­tion, but only those who con­tribute to the com­mon good are in a pos­i­tive posi­tion. Unfor­tu­nate­ly it has always been the con­di­tion of human­i­ty that there are among us those who vic­tim­ize the rest of us for their own self­ish rea­sons, and while phi­los­o­phiz­ing is inter­est­ing and enlight­en­ing, it has no effect on those peo­ple.

  • Kane says:

    It’s fun­ny that we use the term “wast­ing time”, it’s built into our ver­nac­u­lar that idle­ness is bad.

  • kresica35 says:

    peo­ple always see what they want to see hear what they want to hear remem­ber what they want to remem­ber.. .

    but always :p

  • Jim Haynes says:

    This is the top­ic of my book, To Fuller or Not, The verb to work is used always in a con­tri­dic­to­ry way: usu­al­ly it means painful ener­gy spend­ing and some­time joy­ful ener­gy spend­ing. I have made a new verb: to fuller which always means joy­ful enery spend­ing. I have nev­er worked in my life and i always fullered.

  • Paul Chaplin says:

    Dear Dan,

    I reached this arti­cle from the Face­book page of the Buck­min­ster Fuller Insti­tute, if that’s any help to you. (Link: )

    Paul Chap­lin (UK)

  • Michael Cheverie Dewey says:

    This was the best thing arti­cle read in a long time.

  • Ishmael Abraham says:

    As an ortho­dox Mus­lim, I agree with Bertrand Rus­sel. Free-time is a bless­ing of God which humans should use in their spir­i­tu­al and intel­lec­tu­al progress
    The Prophet Muham­mad (peace and bless­ings be upon him) said:
    “Take ben­e­fit of five before five:
    your youth before your old age,
    your health before your sick­ness,
    your wealth before your pover­ty,
    your free-time before your pre­oc­cu­pa­tion,
    and your life before your death.”

  • Rob says:

    I think that the only true les­son to take from this arti­cle is that, were free and we have the sovor­eign­ty to lead our lifes how­ev­er we see fit.

  • Lisa Shapiro says:

    Very true Per­son­al Emo­tion­al Wealth is price­less.…

  • Brian says:

    Thank you for shar­ing this enlight­en­ing pas­sage. I do not con­sid­er myself a reli­gious per­son, but there is a lot of truth to those words. My late father would have hearti­ly agreed. All the best to you!

  • Dan Hobbs says:

    Awe­some arti­cle! Im one of the ‘idle poor’ and my day has been enriched immense­ly by this well writ­ten piece.

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