Two boo’s for ‘living in order to work’


Call me puzzled. I can’t help but recall a wealthy man I used to tutor while I was living in New York City. He was an heir to a famous American dynasty and was doubtless so wealthy that none of his grandchildren would ever need to work. Despite this, he worked very long hours, founding and co-founding companies, some of which would be very familiar to you. Why would someone who doesn’t have to work long, hunger to work–and to do scarcely anything else?

I’ve only begun reading Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, which was originally published in 1899. On the opening pages, Veblen makes plain that barbarian cultures initiated a class distinction between laborers and elites (who were engaged, variously, in politics, warfare, religion, and sport). Until very recently in human history, it simply appeared self-evident that, provided that an economic order had advanced to the point at which not everyone needed to work (there could be slaves, women, and a class of male laborers, say), leisure was regarded as obviously preferable to working, that one worked (if one did, if one had to) for the sake of leisure, and that whatever we mean by ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ or ‘significance’ must needs be sought in non-work. Furthermore, leisure was the honorable, dignified, laudatory term and the second term–whatever is not leisure, i.e., work–would be derived from the leisure concept.

It is therefore surprising (a) that the wealthy, early 50-something man I used to tutor should choose to spend most of his life working and (b) that someone who is out of work would, even if financially secure, find his life boring because he is not working. What is going on? It is a question I cannot yet answer.


In ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,’ David Graeber, who is otherwise adroit in his economic and social analyses, takes it for granted that there is an identity between ‘meaningful work’ and ‘social value.’ He writes that there are those who work to make a ‘meaningful contribution… [to improve] the lives of people all over the world.’ Indeed, he applauds ‘anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.’ What is striking about this thesis is that he has, according to Josef Pieper, identified work with social function: good work is that which is useful, and by implication a good life is a life in which one does useful work on behalf of society. Thus, someone like the wealthy man I tutored believes that he is being maximally useful while the long unemployed man feels himself to be utterly, completely useless. And to be useless is to be valueless. To be valueless is to have no reason for living.

This can’t be the right account of the relationship between work (properly understood) and the good life.


But listen to the difference:

The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end; and therefore the question must be asked, what ought we to do when at leisure? (Aristotle, Politics)

[Under capitalism,] one does not work to live; one lives to work. (Max Weber)

There are only two views of work and leisure, and Weber’s has largely won out. The only problem with it is that it is wrong.


Could history have gone in a different direction? It seems so. We read the following in a recent article entitled ‘The Rise and Fall of “Education for Leisure”‘:

Looking back at the advocates of education for leisure, [the author writes] our first impulse might be to shake our heads at how much they got wrong. Working hours, of course, did not [as was projected in the early twentieth century] continue their rapid decline. But Hunnicutt, the leisure historian, says it isn’t that advocates of education for leisure made foolish predictions—it’s that, around the time of the New Deal, there was a massive shift in the political and social understanding of work and leisure. Facing unsustainable levels of unemployment, he says, Roosevelt had to choose between reducing standard working hours to allow more people to share the same pool of work, and pumping more jobs into the economy. “He decides that the federal government, and government in general, has to take responsibility for creating new work, replacing work eliminated by capitalism,” Hunnicut said. “Full-time full employment becomes the centerpiece of American politics: jobs, jobs, jobs.” 

Here we see the deepening of the Weberian view. It was possible, provided Hunnicut is right, to have made an ‘axial turn’ toward part-time employment, which could have effectively meant a greater commitment to as well as deeper appreciation of  the value of leisure. But instead the story of economic growth, job growth, and the clarion call of full-time employment became the story we told ourselves–with such deleterious results.

Now it seems ‘self-evident’ that (a) we live in order to work, (b) much of our dignity consists in being fully and ‘usefully’ employed, and (c) we believe that a good life is largely identical with doing something of social benefit. 


But the reductio ad absurdum of the Weberian view is social acceleration, which, for Hartmut Rosa, is symbolized in the treadmill. He writes,

The drowning speed of modern life results in the demand to “dance faster and faster just to stay in place” (Conrad 6; also see Robinson and Godbey 33), and thus, without being fully aware of it, the hamster wheel or the treadmill have come to replace the motorcycle as the core icon of our time: the wheels of acceleration stay in place, but wheels don’t always propel us forward: they can also spin around endlessly along their own axes without getting us anywhere.

Thus what emerges is more talk of doing more in each unit of time simply to stay put. There is, in addition, more talk of stress and of being stressed out (a metaphor originally derived from engineering and applied to bridges) and, in the end, of being burned out.

The ordinary person’s experience of time is of something scarce and dwindling on the one hand (there is never enough of it to get what he has to get done) or hassling and harassing him on the other (the deadline staring him in the face).

The Weberian view is tragic and its consequence is Tantalus, Sisyphus, stuckness.