The Idler — as in, the British website devoted to loafing as a spiritual calling, not the series of essays by Samuel Johnson — is, as I’ve said before, in the business of publishing bodice-ripping fantasies of self-sufficiency for bored cubicle dwellers who fancy themselves born free but shackled by chains. Like one of Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehogs, editor Tom Hodgkinson knows one big thing and he says it again and again: much of what we do to earn a paycheck is senseless drudgery. From the seed of this commonplace observation, he produces a hothouse flower of a philosophy. To wit:
If mankind were hard-wired to work, then we would not be enjoying the autonomy of lockdown. Most people don’t gain satisfaction from work, they gain money from it. That’s why they do it.
In fact mankind is hard-wired to write poetry, play music and nurture plants — which is exactly what we have been doing in lockdown. The other day I found myself writing a short poem about the folk singer Sam Lee and his love for nightingales. And I sowed some seeds in a pot. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you have a bit more time.
By “plants,” of course, he means the pretty houseplants you look at while swooning and composing poems, not the sort that form the foundation of the food chain, which require a lot of intensive labor, performed by, uh, other people. Hold that thought; we’ll come back to it. Point is, it’s no surprise that we find him pointing to the coronavirus pandemic as proof that he was right all along. Still, despite the familiar argument, I nearly cracked a tooth on this logical gobstopper:
It is instructive as to the mutable nature of morality, that a few weeks ago, being very busy was considered morally good, and now we are being told to indulge in its precise opposite. Do nothing, save lives. This shows you that Nietzsche was right: morality, so-called, is merely a tool of control.
I feel like I’ve stepped onto an Escherian staircase, where no matter how many steps I take, I never get anywhere. The deceptively simple formulation here, like the tip of an iceberg, hides a mass of idiotic and incoherent assumptions below the surface. So…the fact that different rules apply in different contexts…means that rules are always an arbitrary imposition by The Man? If there’s no moral rule that holds true at all times for all people, all moral rules are equally random?
For many, many people, lockdown will beat working. My neighbour is using his furloughed time and the lovely weather to paint the outside of his house and spend some time in the garden. He says he is not particularly relishing the prospect of going back to work.
And on my daily bicycle rides around west London, an alien observer would be forgiven for thinking he’d landed in some sort of William Morrisesque utopia. There are no cars, the air is clean, birds sing, and smiling family groups cycle along the river.
This theme runs through the entire piece. Why can’t every day be Christmas? Why can’t vacation be fifty weeks of the year? The kind of people who can afford to live in west London look around and notice that the world temporarily continues to turn without their labor, and from this, they deduce the perennial validity of Bertrand Russell’s looniest ideas about humanity en masse freed from toil to pursue philosophical speculation and domestic garden cultivation. I know the word “privilege” has been contaminated beyond all safe handling, but it does require a certain type of comfortable obliviousness to think that all professions are equally capable of going on strike without dire consequences. Hey, the Idler’s online courses have quintupled in recent weeks! Why can’t all those manual laborers also just use Zoom and Slack to do their jobs, or offer an online equivalent of their services?
And maybe we won’t want to go back to work. Maybe the leisure society dreamed of by people like William Morris and later Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes will start to materialise. Morris believed in what he called “useful work” versus “useless toil”. Russell said that a civilised society would gradually reduce the hours of work, leaving time for poetry, nurturing plants and studying philosophy. And Keynes of course reckoned that technology would usher in a 15-hour working week.
Oh, you thought I was kidding about Russell? Well, let’s just be glad he didn’t quote Marx’s hunter/fisher/cattleman/critic ideal, or Trotsky’s delirious fantasy of the average man in the glorious future rising to the heights of an Aristotle or a Goethe. Come to think of it, even that seems like it might be a lot of work, and Hodgkinson, like Peter Gibbons, seems to aspire to little more than lying in bed all day. Or, at least, that’s the image he projects to the people who buy his online courses and products. Merchandising the eschaton, you might say. What, you think flats in west London grow on trees?