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

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Bri­an Eno’s Advice for Those Who Want to Do Their Best Cre­ative Work: Don’t Get a Job

Hear Alan Watts’s 1960s Pre­dic­tion That Automa­tion Will Neces­si­tate a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income

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

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  • h. e. says:

    This should be required read­ing — social eco­nom­ics 101. Thanks for pub­lish­ing this excel­lent arti­cle.

  • John Kazzer says:

    Great arti­cle. Am inter­est­ed in how the con­cept holds-up in con­text of inter­na­tion­al com­pe­ti­tion between coun­tries. How would you por­tray the role of EU or USA when going down this route in a world with Rus­sia, Chi­na and India stay­ing as they are?

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