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Book Review: The Right to Be Lazy: Essays by Paul Lafargue, edited and introduced by Bernard Marszalek, with contributions by Fred Thompson and Kari Lyndersen

October 16, 2013

The Right to Be LazyThe Right to Be Lazy by Paul Lafargue

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first discovered the existence of Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy when the new edition edited by Bernard Marszalek was on a sale table at The Left Forum back on June 8. Had I any money, I would have bought a copy right then simply from reading the back cover. The New York Public Library refused to order a circulating copy, and on September 19, I was told that they could find no library to supply the item. I tweeted out that NYPL refused to order or ILL the book for me, and a few days later, it was showing as “in transit” in my holds queue. It arrived at the Mid-Manhattan Library on October 7, and I checked it out on October 12. The copy came from North Country Community College in Saranac Lake, New York. I finished reading it this morning, and I conclude that the book is easily one of the most important ever written. When I saw the book, it seemed clear that it was analysis of who and who does not have the right to be lazy in the society of that time. Searches on Amazon described it as a rollicking farce that was nevertheless instrumental in reducing the standard work day to eight hours.

The book, while intended to be funny, is so effective because it is so true. The working class in America, with its anti-intellectual tendencies, has been brainwashed into a love of hard manual labor. I don’t think any really do love it, but it sure comes across that way. When I worked for the Indiana University Public Opinion Laboratory, one of our polls asked people what they thought should be taught in high school. One of the items was teaching students job skills. Most people thought that was very important, and only one person whom I interviewed questioned what that meant to the point that he could not consider this important without clarification. All we were allowed to say is “whatever it means to you.” One man with a twangy voice said to me “college… is for hippies, and degenerates” when asked about the importance of high schools preparing students for college. An older woman was emphatic about the importance of high schools teaching jobs skills but her “That’s not too important” for “preparing students for college” is forever burned onto my brain. The hippies and degenerates line made it into Misused Minds. My landlady in Jacksonville thought it was great that I was taking work home because work, to her, is inherently good, even though I was glum about it because I wasn’t being paid any additional money to do it (having fallen into the trap that many salaried employees fall into believing, when in fact, this is still illegal). One of my roommates at the homeless shelter, a parolee whose work experience is in manual labor, said, “I knew there was something wrong with you” when I showed him the book, although he was clearly not being serious.

For this essay, Lafargue narrowly defines only those in the following occupations as workers: agricultural laborers, including herdsmen, servants, and farmers’ daughters living at home, factory workers in cotton, wool, hemp, linen, silk, knitting, mine workers, metal workers (blast furnaces, rolling mills, etc.), and domestics (40). While Lafaruge’s correspondence with Engels makes clear that he himself was a white collar worker (he gave up the practice of medicine after the deaths of the two children he and his wife, Laura Marx, had, then worked in engraving, did correspondence for an insurance company, then tried to live off his writing while supported with checks from Engels), and he objected to socialist conferences that barred workers who were white collar laborers. In this essay, only the blue collar fields mentioned above are considered “work,” and he calls for a restriction of such jobs to no more than three hours a day. At the time (1880), social movements were pressing to the eight hour workday that is currently standard. Ten to fourteen hours of this brutal labor was quite common. The most conservative of the social views was people getting Saturday afternoons off. The organizer of Occu-Evolve was pushing that Occupy’s minim wage goal should be $20 an hour with the hope that it’s at least fifteen. He, I and one other were outvoted by others who thought we should be in solidarity requesting for a raise in the minimum wage to $15. Before Occupy existed, I got involved with a group promoting “Job Creation,” but the guy in charge was a roofer who seemed to have no conception of being medically limited to a desk job, then whined when he offered to pay me $8 to hold a sign at Federal Hall, backhandedly complaining that he “had to” pay me to do this when he offered the money before he made the request, oblivious to the fact that I put up with the pain for one hour because I thought the cause was worthwhile.

Lafargue looks to the ancient Greeks, for whom all such labor was done by slaves. He argues that the difference between then and his present were that there were wage slaves instead of unpaid slaves. He cites Aristotle (55) as longing for a time when mechanization can eliminate work entirely, and all people can devote their time for intellectual pursuits, and, in fact, pretty much any position for which one attends college is not considered work under these narrow definitions of labor. Instead, the machines make work more efficient, and so the workers are overworked and overproducing, to no positive effect. Lafargue’s argument is essentially what we were promised in K-12 would be the result of going to college–the ability to earn a living doing something that you love, a privilege that was awarded to the brightest who could make it through. As detailed in my entry, I have an abhorrence for busy work and sought out intellectual and creative pursuits from the time I was very young, only now to be treated like garbage because I am not only unwilling but unable to do hard physical labor.

Lafargue notes that there was so much overwork that no one can consume the over-priced goods, which often had to be destroyed because there was no room for unsold merchandise. “Hundreds of millions are required to figure the value of the goods that are destroyed. In the last century they were burned or thrown into the water” (33). This is the capitalist thumbing his nose at the worker–not only am I going to pay you so little to subsist to do the work that I want done, but the results of your work are going straight into the garbage because I can’t find anyone who wants to buy it. He discusses the capitalist’s need for Livingston, Stanley Du Chaillu, who search the world trying to find new customers for the goods they attempt to sell (42), a clear prefiguring of globalization. The capitalist compensates for this by making products that are built to be used up or broken quickly and need replacing, with no eye for quality (43)–an “Age of Adulteration.”

The term “work ethic” has strong associations with Protestantism. On page 46, Lafargue notes that the Catholic Church laws provided the laborer with 90 rest days enforced by law, most of which were for feasting. In 1666, Perefixus, Archbishop of Paris suppressed 17 of them in his diocese. Lafargue describes Protestantism as religion adapted to fit the industrial and commercial needs of the bourgeoisie. The elimination of saints made many more workdays available. As such, it has been easier to establish socialist ideas in countries like France and Italy, where Protestantism is not so ingrained in the populace. Protestants seem to love the phrase “God helps those who help themselves,” a purportedly Biblical statement that is really derived from the fictitious book of Philistines that also says, “thou shalt not take thy member into thy hands and stroke it” and “only men have the right to decide if a pregnancy is ended.” The phrase is directly contradicted by “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17, New Revised Standard Version). High percentages of Americans believe a lot of stupidities in regard to the “help themselves” phrase. Wikipedia cites the statement as coming from Ancient Greece, which is interesting considering Lafargue’s emphasis on the Greeks’ despisement of labor. He cites the poet Antiparos longing for slave women to give up the mill in favor of leisure.

The set of essays includes a work of fiction called “Sale of an Appetite.” Lafargue explicitly invokes Mary Shelley’s The Last Man as being supposedly assembled from a work by another, first person, author through disordered leaves of paper–Lafargue claims that the central character wrote the book, but he changed it to third person. This would be perfect material for House of Mystery, except that the villain does not get punished, which would be required in code-approved days. It depicts a poor hungry, homeless man named Emile Destouches who is hired by M. Sch___ (the full name is never given) to digest his food via a mystical process. M. Sch___ is a complete glutton, and Destouches is ultimately allowed no work-life balance. When he wants out of the contract, he goes to M. Gabarit, the notary, who tells him the following:

You complain because you have been reduced to becoming nothing but a digestive apparatus; but all who earn their living by working are lodged at the same sign. They obtain their means of existence only by confining themselves to being nothing but an organ functioning to the profit of another; the mechanic is the arm which forges, taps, hammers, planes, digs, weaves; the singer is the larynx which vocalizes, warbles, spins out notes; the engineer is the brain which calculates, which arranges plans; the prostitute is the sexual organ which gives out venereal pleasure. Do you imagine that the clerks in my office use their intelligence, or that they reflect when they are copying papers? Oh, but they don’t; thinking is not their business; they are nothing but fingers which scribble. They perform in my offices for ten or twelve hours this work which is far from exhilarating, which gives them headaches, stomach disorders and hemorrhoids; and at evening they home writing to finish, that they may earn a few cents to pay their landlord. Console yourself, my dear sir, these young people suffer as well as you, and not one of them has the satisfaction of saying that he receives per year the sum that you draw for a single month of digestive labor.

This really sums up what is so abhorrent about capitalism. Capitalists ought to be mocked as “cappie greenos” the way communists are mocked as “commie pinkos.” The term “handicapped” is derived from a disabled person having “cap in hand” for the purpose of panhandling. As such, it is considered a pejorative term even though it’s a pretty cool Jethro Tull song. Capitalism is a system in which the wealthy want a handout, only instead of the handout being money, it is pitifully paid work that barely makes a dent in the workers’ needs. There is no such thing as an intelligent person who complains about people on SNAP benefits using mobile phones. These people do not realize that if you’re using more than 50% of your income to cover your necessities, you are impoverished. Such people have no problem with 100% of a person’s income being used for necessities. This is morally bankrupt.

Marszalek discusses the book’s reception in the 1960s. He says that intellectuals were concerned that mechanization would lead to depression-level unemployment. When I was younger, I had little concern about mechanization, because I thought manufacturing jobs were for the intellectually lazy and the demise of such jobs should be celebrated, right in the vein of Antiparos, so that the workers can put their time to better pursuits. Unfortunately, this is not how it works, even for those who go on to advanced education, such as myself. You are still simply a commodity of “What task can you do for me?” because, if you have no money, you are effectively shut out of the marketplace no matter how skilled you are unless you are able to sell those skills to someone else. The wealthy lazy have no such problems, yet few of them are as intelligent as I am, let alone as honest. Jamie Dimon and Ina Drew lied to Congress, and all they had to do was pay (to them) a pittance, whereas anyone else would have had to serve prison time. According to Marszalak, “While [the intellectuals] accurately foresaw the decline of manufacturing jobs, their forecast that unemployment would grow to Depression Era proportions proved incorrect” (13). Is he using a restricted time frame? Two pages later, he says,

“Workers today [2011], when they can find jobs, have no option but uncertain employment, since from data entry to college teaching no job is secure. Include non-profits that absorb an idealistic workforce in no-future jobs at starvation wages with no benefits, and this phenomenon, universal in the ‘developed’ world, defines a new labor sector: the precariat–those who submit to precarious employment.”

This has been my existence from the moment I finished college. My first job was data entry, and more recently I had a very precarious job teaching college. I didn’t appreciate that. Now with a college degree, I wasn’t being paid to think, but to be a functionary, hence my play’s title, Misused Minds. I originally derived it from the United Negro College Fund’s “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” but “Wasted Minds” was already taken by Vanessa Satone for a manga (I later met Satone at King Con 1 in 2009) and seemed to me to carry a drug connotation that I wanted to avoid, since none of the economic problems depicted in the play are the result of drug use.

From K-12, we were taught to aspire to do work that we loved and that, to us, was anything but drudgery, especially from the men who chose teaching as a career. The male teachers were always the most popular. I imagine this has changed quite a bit, but the male teachers chose the profession because they wanted it, while the female teachers, at least the older ones, were in it because they saw no better opening. Whatever they achieved has been destroyed by the capitalist class. As Marszalak puts it,

“Work has changed dramatically since the nineteenth century, and yet it remains recognizable as enslavement–brutal and crippling, mentally and physically. There is nothing good that can be said for it. Work has been transformed over the decades, however the universal attitudinal and behavioral responses to order-taking, remain unchanged. The pervasive ‘bad attitude’ railed against by capitalists, is sufficient evidence that work as meritorious human activity is discredited for all but the most servile. and when career gurus, without remorse, counsel young people that they will have to ‘retool’ (meaning that they will need to retrain and to commoditize themselves) for six or seven ‘careers’ before they retire, what response can this evoke but utter despair? The work ethic issued from the workers’ contractual obligation conceded by them on expectation that the capitalists would guarantee secure and decent employment. For over a hundred years labor struggled to attain this chimeric goal, only to have the bosses methodically trash it in a few decades.

Marsalak concludes his introductory essay with the following:

Lafargue’s essay implies that to build a new society we need a new foundation for its creation. What is the opposite of work? Neither leisure nor idleness. The opposite of work is autonomous and creative collective activity–ludic activity–that develops our humanity and grounds our practice of reversing perspective. The desire to be a jesting whistleblower of daily life’s subservience is a revolutionary desire.

You read it right there. Creativity is the opposite of work. So when a rabid anti-feminist mocked me for saying that I love Anita Sarkeesian’s “work” with the retort that she doesn’t “work” is true in that sense. The works of William Shakespeare are not “works,” just as Ben Jonson was criticised in 1616 for publishing a book of his “works” that included his plays. The word “opera” in Italian literally means “work” and is the root of “operation.” Shall we rename such creative works “opera?” That would be confusing. I am constantly being told how I refuse to work, how I choose not to work, how I can work in spite of my injuries, etc.

If creative work is not work, then I reject work. I demand my right to be lazy, and I demand my right to housing. Based on what I was taught throughout K-12 education and beyond, I have earned the right to have housing while doing creative work. The wealth needs to be taken away form the capitalist class that doesn’t work and given to the creative class that longs to have the resources to survive and do their creative work. We must stand up and join together. The capitalists think that they are “entitled” because they had money on which to build a business, but have nothing good to say about those they believe “act entitled” like me, who believe that my education and brain power should exempt me from hard physical labor. They don’t even think my physical challenges should exempt me from hard physical labor. They are no different from slaveholders. Their “vacuum up” economy needs to be altered, their wealth redistributed. This is what the capitalist class most fears. They keep saying the wealth will go back where it was within a year. They keep saying this because they know that the creative class will rise to the top if given the resources to execute their ideas. I would say, “Stand up!” at this point, but given my physical challenges, I would have to sit back down again too soon for the metaphor to work.

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4 Comments
  1. Jeremy Knowlton wrote this to me via Facebook on March 18, 2009:

    “When you have dug a ditch, built a house, worked 16 hrs a day for 8 hrs of pay, or busted your ass in any way…. you can say you have worked. I would say your attitude is why you have not gotten anywhere. I wouldn’t hire you on that basis alone… not to mention you probably have a poor work ethic. I treat my business as I do my children…. I take care of it …. that way it will take care of me. The money is secondary to me, the pride I take comes first.”

    I think it’s hilarious that someone would even bring up the word “ethic” when advocating for someone working 16 hours on 8 hours of pay.

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