Deadly Folly of Busy-ness

With the questionable future of “jobs” and the dubious benefits of economic “recovery,” an existential question arises everyday at sunrise — what to do today?

Seventeenth century Puritans had their answer: work hard, avoid idle temptations, and pray that Providence — in the form of favorable weather and good harvests — would provide (for the “commonwealth”).  Nineteenth century bourgeois-utilitarians added the elements of disciplined training, methodical routine, practical expertise, and –unlike the Puritans — “conspicuous consumption.”  These core Western “values”—inculcated in early childhood—include the intrinsic virtue of “hard work,” and the insistence on daily, unremitting, “practical” activity (i.e., “productivity”). Sixties-era radical theorist Herbert Marcuse referred to the tyranny of this “performance principle”—made possible by the “surplus-repression” of basic human desires.1

Needless to say, over two centuries of relentless economic activity have cluttered and degraded and deforested the world to such an extent that we now confront, among other previously inconceivable catastrophes, the specters of “global warming” and deadly yet perennial nuclear wastes.  Yet, restlessly insatiable, the profit-addicted Juggernaut remains in perpetual-motion—devouring entire ecosystems as it plunders “resources” and carves out new “markets.”  Indeed, such unremitting “development,” as John Stuart Mill prophesied 150 years ago, could end up destroying the entire world.

Karl Marx emphasized the inevitable volatility of “free”-market conditions (the “boom-slump” cycle).  The over-extension of business credit invariably leads to overproduction and periodic recessions —wherein millions of the “precariat” lose their livelihoods.  Loss of income leads to more homelessness, more malnourished children, and other serious social ills associated with increasing poverty.

Yet, at the same time—at least in the United States today—an overlooked “benefit” of economic recession is a quieter, less-busy social environment.  Daily life slows down, traffic volume decreases and superfluous consumption precipitously drops.  The local strip-mall project is put on hold.  People stay home (as long as they can afford to keep their homes).   If “health (sic) insurance” or cable TV become financially out-of-reach, the individual still gains more accessible free time—to, perhaps, read about preparing cheap yet nutritious meals, learn some time-honored DIY skills (like growing vegetables), ponder Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” or listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

At the risk of sounding like Proudhon in his “Philosophy of Poverty”—which provoked an angry critique from Marx—I would simply point out that the free time of “under-employment” allows for self-directed growth, whether intellectual, aesthetic or “spiritual.2 Surely we as radicals reject the desirability of an 8-10 hour workday as such—enslaved by the profit-imperatives of those who own the production-system?  Since one only lives once, why not free up one’s limited time in order to cultivate the full range of human sensibility and finely-hone our uniquely individual forms of dissent and negative revolt?  This requires—preferably in a low-cost, rural setting—a certain disdain for material comfort, a prideful willingness to “do without,” and considerable ingenuity. (Not necessarily dumpster-diving, but rather, growing food, using public resources like libraries; and enjoying pastoral pleasures, peaceful contemplations, quiet open spaces, and the sheer exhilaration of feeling unchained– however one is clothed and furnished from a thrift store.)

In our fear-driven haste to work hard, attain material trappings, and relentlessly pursue financial “security”—so that, someday, somewhere, we may actually live without “worry”—we miss the simple delights of being alive now.  Do we share, with our children, the joyful spirit of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence”—as well as the playful exuberance of worldwide Trickster myths?  Or do we “share” our worries about insurance premiums, mortgage payments, college tuition — and their future “careers”?  In spite of “relationship problems,” do we savor the earthy delights of “warm-hearted sex” (to paraphrase Lady Chatterley’s lover)?  Or do we worry about the mechanics of sexual “performance”?

We will die, soon or later, that’s certain enough.  But will we ever know how to live?

  1. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Beacon Press, 1955).  (See also his discussion of an “aesthetic ethos, ”in his otherwise out-dated Essay on Liberation, Beacon 1969).  Ironically, unlike Marcuse, many progressive activists today—hard at work at their computers, organizing and writing–may exhibit a variation of Puritan (“worldly”) asceticism: compassionate toward the victims of injustice yet suspicious of human pleasures and unresponsive to any joie de vivre.  (Cf. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). []
  2. Marxist psychoanalyst Erich Fromm devoted an entire book to this subject (implicit in Marx’s early Paris manuscripts): To Have or to Be?  (Harper & Row, 1976).  Cf. also his excellent study Marx’s Concept of Man (Continuum, 1966), which appends Marx’s early essays on non-alienated, self-directed productivity (labor). []

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.