If You Care About Human Freedom, You Should Reject the Capitalist Work Ethic

The capitalist work ethic insists that we keep our heads down and work endlessly, even if our job is degrading. Democratic socialists want to free workers from drudgery so we can develop our full human potential and simply enjoy the one life we have.

What makes Paul Lafargue’s case for leisure distinctive is that he unapologetically endorses hedonistic idleness. (Jim Heimann Collection / Getty Images)

Britney Spears once famously said, “You gotta work bitch,” and as often is the case, Comrade Spears was exactly right. Few qualities are as lauded under capitalism as hard work. Conservatives like Dinesh D’Souza tell us that socialism, even if it works, will create a society of sloths looking for handouts. Meritocracy’s defenders insist that the people on top earned their status through grit and drive, despite overwhelming evidence about the role luck and advantage play in determining life outcomes. Others cast hard work in explicitly religious terms — “a duty to God,” as one conservative writer put it.

Yet despite spending much of our waking lives working, most of us find our jobs a source of unhappiness rather than fulfillment. Real wages have declined in recent decades, and attacks on unions have allowed bosses free rein to act as private tyrants, regulating our behavior even when we clock out.

It’s easy to forget, despite what the self-declared defenders of Western civilization will tell you, that leisure was once synonymous with the good life. For the ancient Greeks, it offered citizens time to spend with their family, pursue higher-order artistic and philosophical activities, and participate in the governance of the city. Of course, this was in part because ancient Greece was a slave society where free Greek citizens — nonslaves — were relieved of many of the burdens of manual labor. And even in nonslave societies, for many centuries absolute scarcity forced humans to spend most of their lives in a horrible grind against natural necessity.

That began to change with the advent of capitalism, which spurred unprecedented economic growth. By the nineteenth century, as the technological development of the means of production proceeded apace, socialists and the broader workers’ movement argued that everyone should be entitled to leisure time, whether to develop their more refined capacities or simply to relax and enjoy the only life we have.

Marxism and Human Perfectibility

Perhaps the most famous socialist to argue for a “right to be lazy” was Paul Lafargue, whose 1883 pamphlet bearing that title has been rereleased in a splendid new edition by the New York Review of Books. Lafargue, a Cuban Haitian émigré, was born in 1842 and married Karl Marx’s second daughter, Laura, in the late 1860s. He dedicated himself to carrying on his father-in-law’s socialist legacy.

Ironically, Marx was wary of Lafargue’s politics, going so far as to declare that if Lafargue was a Marxist then Marx himself wasn’t. Shortly before his death, Marx criticized Lafargue for “revolutionary phrase-mongering.”

But the father- and son-in-law agreed on the value of leisure time. Marx was an ardent proponent of shortening the working day — this at a time when twelve- to fourteen-hour days, six days a week were common — both because it helped build the class struggle and immediately improved the lives of workers. Marx wanted workers to have the time to develop the full range of their personalities. In The German Ideology (1846), he and Engels somewhat jocularly expressed this as learning to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

(New York Review of Books)

In a more serious vein decades later, Marx skewered capitalism for squandering human potential since millions lacked the time and resources to develop themselves. Under socialism, for the first time, the “development of human powers” would become “an end in itself,” for “the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases.”

These perfectionist comments have led interpreters to ascribe truly utopian expectations to socialism. Leon Trotsky’s claim that in communist societies “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise” is only the most florid example.

The Right to be Lazy

Lafargue doesn’t ascribe such rarefied expectations to human beings in a socialist society. He simply points out that generations of thinkers, including Aristotle, dreamed of a world where automation would free human beings from drudgery. By the late nineteenth century, he writes,

Aristotle’s dream is our reality. Our machines breathe fire, have limbs of steel, never grow weary, never need to sleep. They are marvellously productive and behave docilely — even as they go about their sacred work. And yet the minds of the great capitalist philosophers continue to be dominated by the prejudice of wage labor, the worst sort of slavery.

Lafargue calls the “age of work” the “age of pain, the age of misery, and corruption.” He rebukes “well-fed, self-satisfied” men who tout grueling labor as a cure to “vice” and the basis of “progress.” Real progress, Lafargue argues, isn’t just an increase in production. It means having the leisure to “savor the joys of the earth to make love and laugh, to revel and stomp in honor of the joyous God idleness.” To spend time with friends, family, and even oneself.

What makes Lafargue’s case for leisure distinctive is that he unapologetically endorses hedonistic idleness. In his eyes, many socialists have internalized romantic bourgeois norms about the inherent importance of perfecting human beings. When Marx defends leisure time, it is partly because he thinks it will foster grander forms of individuality.

Paul Lafargue, 1871. (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, I happen to believe Marx is on to something: under democratic socialism, many talented individuals would no longer be denied opportunities to flourish due to factors beyond their control. But Lafargue comes across as more realistic in admitting that, if given free time, many of us would choose to spend it enjoying life for its own sake.

And what, Lafargue daringly asks, is so wrong with this? Why do so many of us feel a tinge of guilt when pursuing unmitigated joy and pleasure? Why wouldn’t a world where most people are able to enjoy their lives by working less be an improvement over one where many of us work very hard and have little to show for it?

These are all important questions at a time of increasing debates about the feasibility of four-day workweeks and the desirability of working from home. I don’t agree with everything Lafargue says, most notably the hard-and-fast distinction between work and hedonistic leisure. I suspect that in a democratic socialist society, given the opportunity, most people would like to work at a job they found meaningful and useful. The difference is that this work would be freer than under the punitive capitalist status quo because, along with having more democratic workplaces, ordinary people wouldn’t be compelled to toil simply to live.

Marx and a Life of Leisure

The most moving part of this new edition of The Right to be Lazy isn’t the titular essay. It’s a little collection of Lafargue’s “Memories of Karl Marx,” which lend rare personal insight into the great thinker’s personal life.

Marx was undoubtedly a flawed man, with a sharp temper and a stern disposition not just toward foes but also allies. Yet the portrait of Marx that Lafargue paints is very different. He describes a pleasant, “tender and gentle” family man, beloved by friends and kin, who says “children should educate their parents” and has a real sense of humor about himself. At one point, Lafargue catches Marx smoking. Marx offers a self-deprecating retort: Capital, he says, will never pay for all the cigars he has smoked while writing it.

These humanizing snapshots belie the conservative caricature of Marx as a violent revolutionary, and even soften the self-serious socialist gloss on him as a world-historical intellect whose works must be consulted as though prophetic texts. What comes through in Lafargue’s telling is a man who worked and thought very hard, but never lost sight of the people around him and the joy he took in their company. May we all learn such wisdom in our moments of leisure.