A French politician recently made the case for the "right to laziness". In the era of the “great resignation” or "quiet quitting”, the idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. After all, history shows us that work is a very recent human passion.
PARIS — “The value of work” has been one of French President Emmanuel Macron and his government's priorities in recent years. Communists, too, claim that working is a source of emancipation, while the classic liberalism makes labor the core of progress. Meanwhile, the tech enthusiasts who hold the real power today also see work as the only way to save the public accounts.
Big issues are at stake here: our whole social system — from calculating pensions to paying allowances — is driven by the hunt for that next job.
In the middle of all this, Sandrine Rousseau’s dissident voice rose up. The left-leaning French economist and politician started asking for a “right to laziness.”
Naturally, many found the idea laughable — and yet, in the era of the “great resignation” and "quiet quitting," a right to laziness deserves serious consideration.
Labor is a recent passion
Let’s first remember that on the scale of human history, work is a very recent passion. The U.S. anthropologist Marshall Sahlins points out that hunter-gatherers only spent a few hours a day looking for supplies. The rest of their time was dedicated to their social interactions, as well as playing and dancing.
For citizens in Ancient Greece, too, there was no more noble occupation than political debates. Historian Paulin Ismard studied the the “dêmosioi”, slaves who were delegated high admin tasks whose jobs were considered demeaning.
French aristocrats from the Ancien Régime were very touchy when it came to their dignity. Still, they would have rather died than sacrificed otium (leisure) to negotium (the non-existence of leisure). It was not until the 17th century’s Protestant traders that we see the biblical idea of “earning one’s bread with the sweat of one’s brow” starting to be taken seriously.
Three hours a day
The right to laziness, on the other hand, is inscribed in a tradition of anarchism, and someone like Paul Lafargue (also known as Karl Marx’s son-in-law) was briefly its spokesperson. In an eponymous pamphlet, Lafargue brilliantly reports a “moribund passion for work, pushed until the exhaustion of the individual’s vital forces.”
The recent burnout epidemic that we are going through makes these ideas very relevant today. No one enjoys losing their lives trying to earn them. So, Lafargue thinks the working class should work no more than three hours every day.
Still, work, as a productive and compensated activity, cannot be considered as vain idleness. Lafargue asks a great question: why should sociability, which is an essential component of our fulfillment as human beings, be inextricably linked to our employability?
Who has his perspectives straight?
Response to a double emergency
The “right to laziness” is answering a double emergency in today's society. On one hand, the average hours worked per person have significantly dropped as a consequence of technology: according to the French institute for statistics, INSEE, the country is currently getting closer to the 15 hours a week that Keynes anticipated a century ago.
On the other hand, ecological exigence makes us question productivism. Yet, productivism is the foundation of the liberal-Marxist alliance. Inspired by British economist David Ricardo’s ideas, Marx states that work is at the origin of every creation of value.
So all through the 20th century, the capitalist workaholism and the Communist movement of Stakhanovism (a system designed to raise production by offering incentives to efficient workers) represented two ways of increasing material goods.
But taking the search seriously for what Sandrine Rousseau's calls "energy sobriety" means putting work back in its real place.
Promise of pleasure
The right to laziness would imply redesigning our social system in a radically different way. Social benefits should no longer be considered subsidies that one gets between two jobs but as a legitimate income to help us meet our basic needs. Hence the proposal for a universal income.
It is not about denigrating work: it is about admitting that it does not sum up the value of an individual within society. It is about remembering that creating value exceeds what is economically measurable, and that the state should remain neutral when it comes to choosing — or not choosing — accumulation.
One last thing that should however be notified to Sandrine Rousseau. “Sobriety” does not mean “austerity.” The right to laziness isn’t a vow of poverty but the promise of pleasure.
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