It is still worth distinguishing between the slacker, of any description, and the idler. Slacking lacks a commitment to an alternative scale of value. By contrast, the genius of the genuine idler, whether as described by Diogenes or Jerome K. Jerome, is that he or she is not interested in work at all, but instead devoted to something else. What that something else involves is actually less important than the structural defection from the values of working. In other words, idling might involve lots of activity, even what appears to be effort; but the essential difference is that the idler does whatever he or she does in a spirit of infinite and cheerful uselessness that is found in all forms of play.
Idling at once poses a challenge to the reductive, utilitarian norms that otherwise govern too much of human activity and provides an answer—or at least the beginning of one—to the question of life’s true purpose. It is not too much to suggest that being idle, in the sense of enjoying one’s open-ended time without thought of any specific purpose or end, is the highest form of human existence. This is, to use Aristotelian language, the part of ourselves that is closest to the divine, and thus offers a glimpse of immortality. To be sure, from this Olympian vantage we may spy new purposes and projects to pursue in our more workaday lives; but the value of these projects, and the higher value from which these are judged, can be felt only when we slip the bonds of use.
And thus the same old urge to strive after status and accomplishment reasserts itself. You see, I’m not merely lazy or unproductive, I’m an authentic genius who has realized the true purpose of life, scaled the Olympian heights in order to take in the breathtaking sight of human existence from its proper perspective. This is the sort of thing that drove Lao-tzu to the city gates, muttering to himself with his eyes on the mountains ahead.
I don’t fundamentally disagree with anything he says here, of course. But when he takes such care to distinguish slacking from idling as if the former is merely the right action done for the wrong reason, it makes me just a bit leery. That way lies respectability and productivity. If you want to dissent from society’s view on the value of labor, you have to accept the scorn and disregard that come with it.
Veblen, after his fashion a sharp critic of capitalism but always more cynical than the socialist dreamers, demonstrated how minute divisions of leisure time could be used to demonstrate social superiority, no matter what the form or principle of social organization; but he was no more able than Marx to see how ingenious capitalist market forces could be in adapting to changing political environments. For instance, neither of them sensed what we now know all too well, namely that democratizing access to leisure would not change the essential problems of distributive justice. Being freed from drudgery only so that one may shop or be entertained by movies and sports, especially if this merely perpetuates the larger cycles of production and consumption, is hardly liberation. In fact, “leisure time” becomes here a version of the company store, where your hard-won scrip is forcibly swapped for the very things you are working to make.