Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness": Amate dolce far niente? (Do you love doing nothing?), and why you find it hard to do

Dolce far Niente (The Sweetness of Doing Nothing) by John William Godward, 1904 (Public Domain)

Essay Notes: "In Praise of Idleness" by Bertrand Russell

Dolce far Niente: The sweetness of doing nothing, or, The Italian art of piddling about. Why is it so hard for Anglophones? Bertrand Russell provides some of the answers but there is a long history of academic thought to ensure that nobody, especially poor people, can simply do nothing. Think Malthus, Ricardo, Spencer, and the Fair Work Commission.

At first glance, such false consciousness all seems a bit stupid. But John Williams Godward, the artist whose painting adorns the top of this page, killed himself because the world was not large enough for both Pablo Picasso and himself. It would appear, then, that even people who revere the art of piddling about can also be really, really stupid.

Take, for instance, my boss back when I was doing a government traineeship in warehousing at age 18. I worked in hydraulic spare parts. One day, business was slow. I had reordered all the stock, sold everything I could, even worked on the bench to get a few smaller jobs out of the way for the tradesmen. I was bored.

So I got out the mop and bucket. A hydraulics workshop is quite oily, so kerosene is the cleaner of choice. I mopped the entire workshop, re-stacked and re-organised everything. At last, there was nothing to do, and I sat at my desk and twiddled my thumbs and waited for the telephone to ring

So my boss walks over to me and says:
I know you have worked really hard, and I know that you have tried to find everything possible to do, and I know there is nothing else for you to do. But I cannot bear the thought of having to pay for you to sit there and do nothing, so I want you to shuffle papers or something and look busy so I can feel OK about it.
No joke, he actually said that. And in those words, I was awakened to the absolute stupidity of work in its modern guise.

I recalled how everyone around me was judged by how they worked: "He's a good worker". I remember being praised that way myself, and my stupid ego would have me feeling chuffed as I worked harder still.

And then I remember hearing employers say "Give 'em an extra five cents an hour and call 'em a manager, and they'll do the work of three people".

Still, many people work hard their entire lives, but in the few years before they are eligible for the pension, and their body breaks down, they are treated like bludgers as they grovel for the disability pension. It is all beyond comprehension.

Apparently, there is "evidence" that reducing wages for weekend workers will increase jobs. Because teenagers (who work in retail on weekends) getting paid too much is a major driver of unemployment. Never mind false consciousness, this is fake consciousness. Russell picks up on this false economy.

But the big question is, what are we working for? Work has even cornered happiness, so it can't be for that!

Russell echoes Adam Smith in the parable of the pin makers, and Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (which I am reading at the moment), and of course Karl Marx in opposition to Max Weber and the Protestant work ethic. I lived under this cloud in Queensland.

Then I left conservative Queensland in the late 1990s and moved to Canberra. It was a worker's paradise. No longer was my work based on presenteeism, or simply being at work, but on what I produced and the outcomes I achieved. I love Canberra for giving me the opportunity to escape the conservative stranglehold I had felt since birth.

Recently, however, I have questioned how far this might go, and how we might achieve our own ends only at the expense of others. Clearly, much of the issues Russell mentions is class-related. Yes, Australia has a class system, but unlike the United Kingdom, Australia vehemently pretends that it doesn't have a class system. But there are different global tiers of classes, too.

When I first learnt of Tim Ferriss' 4-Hour Workweek, I read critiques of his ideas about outsourcing mundane tasks to poorly paid workers in the developing world. This is indeed a conundrum.  If you are certain that not giving someone in the developing world a job is a good way to reduce global poverty, then fill your boots. Nonetheless, Ferriss' ideas are not necessarily about using other people to achieve our aims in a heartless manner.

The message I hear in Ferriss' work, class issues and the internationale aside, is that we do not need to work so much. There is actually no need for it.

Think of meetings. When I served as an army officer, orders groups (O groups) served an important purpose, and good operators could get important messages through the chain of command quickly, covering all bases.

These days, contemporary organisations see meetings as work. People spend all day in meetings, meetings which take up at least and most often more time than allocated, and then the attendees forget to pass on any of the decisions to the people who actually do the work. Yet those attending the meetings derive some absurd feeling of status and prowess that makes it feel like work.

Don't get me wrong, meetings are a necessary evil, but there is a reason I ask people the question "How many meetings did you achieve today?"

I'd often thought it was a lack of discipline in conducting O groups, but it seems it is more a case of the conundrum of finding things to do with our time that we can classify as work. The coal face is a lonely space these days. There used to be kids and everyone down there.

Children working in coal mines in Pennsylvania. Photograph: Janet Lindenmuth CC BY-SA 2.0
If you live the unexamined life, then work is more important than leisure. As Gary Gutting says:
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.
If you are doing life the wrong way around, it hasn't necessarily been your fault. But once you have read In Praise of Idleness, from then on it is your fault.

Bertrand Russell's essay is an important reminder of how far we have come, without really going anywhere. The trick for most workers is to fight fake consciousness and fake work with fake busy-ness. At least until the Great Leap Forward comes along. But good luck with that - you'd be better off just doing nothing. Dolce far Niente!