Old Philosophy, New Direction


A few years ago, I was reading a lot of Bertrand Russell’s works on social philosophy. He was a socialist, but one born into established wealth and the luxuries of a pursuit of knowledge at Cambridge, one of the highest regarded institutions in the world. He put an immense amount of work into his studies and writings and teachings, most notably the Principia Mathematica (which I haven’t gotten around to reading), but into his mid-life (relatively speaking) and later years he turned to writing on social issues and took a stance of economic equality that was very different from his personal heritage.

“In Praise of Idleness” was one essay written during that period. It called for, not lazing around as we do today (because there was not yet cable television), but reducing the hours of work put into making a living in the economy and spending other time pursuing higher purposes. It stressed the virtue of community, not products or services provided for pay but connections and care for one’s neighbours and the land. Art and creativity should be as valued as labour, but not for profit and mass marketing as we see today. Automation and mechanization were supposed to ease the burden on a man’s hands and The World of Tomorrow should’ve cut down to 20 hour work weeks and leisure time galore.

That wasn’t just a vision of Russell in this work, but the idealistic projections in the post-war West of what innovation could bring. And yet, despite the capacity of machines to reduce labour in producing our basic necessities we are working as much as ever, except for those who don’t work at all. Those who don’t work come in two very different kinds, and if the mechanical division of labour of the theory of Emile Durkheim were designed more democratically unemployment and poverty could be reduced to nil rather than having the Veblen leisure class and an increasingly Dickensian poor. (Although, to be fair, Charles Dickens’ and the Victorian era didn’t have fast food and Wal-Mart to make the poor obese and hoarding rather than emaciated with barely a single possession.)

Socialism isn’t threatening to freedom and innovation and the accumulation of wealth – it’s leveling. It’s not communism or totalitarianism of any kind, because it respects individual freedoms. In fact, the idealism of the Russellian society goes by the very American values of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. And yet America is perhaps the Western nation furthest from this ideal.

I’d say the point of my writing this is to foster discourse on working towards Russell’s ideal, but that’s merely a small part. Even arguing for a 20 hour work, I must admit, isn’t the biggest part of this post. In minute hypocrisy to the substance of what I write, it’s mostly selfishly trying to show off my individual impressiveness. That’s not very collective, but if we valued art and creativity surely from this a community could be born.


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