The right to laziness, an urgent claim

Written by Isabelle Stengers on 28 March 2013

In the framework of the group exhibition Bon Travail, Argos invited two philosophers on the 27th of march to talk about the role of laziness in society today: Isabelle Stengers (ULB) and Petra Van Brabandt (Sint Lucas Antwerp). They investigated what our ambiguous position regarding laziness says about working, enjoyment, the modern day production and consumption model and our mortality. You can read the lecture Isabelle Stengers gave during that evening down here.

The right to laziness, once claimed by Paul Lafargue in Le Droit à la Paresse (1880), is perhaps more topical than ever. We live a time and age when competitiveness is the categorical imperative in the name of which businesses, towns, regions, countries and continents are set against each other. A time and age when business people are proclaimed guardian angels because of jobs to be created or to be saved. In such a time and age to claim the right to laziness seems like a betrayal, an appeal to apathy, almost blasphemy!

Lafargue associated the right to laziness with a general reduction of working hours. That we take up this theme again is only logical and in fact also necessary, as we are told that if we do not change our production methods, the future of humankind will be jeopardized. It is no longer possible, as we used to believe, to talk about the current unfavourable balance of power and to predict that change will come in a hundred years, or to play with Kondratiev waves-this miracle of economic pseudoscience-which offer a grandiose perspective of regularity that has been fabricated from data inferred from just a few of the most "explosive" decades of human history, in the course of which the entire inheritance of our planetary history-first coal, then petrol-has gone up in smoke. Yet, we rather hear about the urgent obligation to extend the so-called active live of people. Logic and the menaces that hang over the future, clash with this terrible objection: "that will decrease even more the competitiveness of our industry." Today, the reduction of working hours constitutes no longer a "reformist" claim-it is an almost revolutionary viewpoint. It also confronts us with the question of a transition period.

This situates the particularly minimalist version of the "right to laziness" I will offer here: the resumption of a struggle which selects its own terrain, a terrain where those who govern us, those who present themselves as "responsible", acting upon inevitabilities ("unfair but necessary") which we childishly seek to escape, still have a few miserable degrees of freedom-as the rest of them have been surrendered to the "laws of the market" and their European and international spokespersons. These degrees of freedom concern the installment of an "active policy for employment" meant to ward off the "great threat" of unemployed and other people receiving some form of allowance, who all get up late and live from hand to mouth, being caught in the trap of laziness..

I could speak here as a philosopher, because laziness-which in the case of the unemployed may be referred to as the trap of laziness, the trap of unemployment, social isolation, etc-is then called leisure, and has from its very start been defined by philosophers as a prerequisite for philosophy. Philosophers should not worry about making a living, according to the Ancients: if one is to reflect on life, one should not waste time to earn a living. However, I have no intention whatsoever to claim that those unemployed who are hunted down today as "bad unemployed", are amongst those who think and who are actively engaged in inventing new ways to live. I do not want to open the black box of the "laziness" for which they are blamed and put ideas into the head of the inspectors who would then evaluate who "deserves" to be lazy. That one? Oh, well, he's a philosopher, sorry for having asked. This one? But no, he lives off a private income, an annuity-we don't want to talk about the trap of living of a private income, do we? But if the person is simply unemployed, we have to protect him against himself and demand that he prove that he "deserves" to be lazy. Thus I will not indulge here in a eulogy of those who, being lazy according to administrative criteria, bustle about, dedicate themselves to thinking, and maybe even contribute to the creation of a future that is worth living. There are of course people like that, but not everyone is so fortunate. Some people are simply fed up, that's all. Today all of these people, "deserving" or not, can be penalized indiscriminately, and it is precisely this element of indiscrimination I want to retain.

In doing so, I am relating to an event that greatly impressed me and that radically called into question the judgment of experts who are in a position to decide that some people need to be protected despite themselves, namely drug addicts. When in the early 1990s I got interested in this problem, not only therapists described drug consumption as a form of "social suicide", justifying that consumers be protected against themselves-but also a number of reformed drug users spoke in defense of the laws that had forced them back to the straight and narrow path, without which they would have been dead. And I still remember the profound joy I felt at a symposium that addressed the problem of a repressive policy with regard to drugs. As was often the case, the meeting was invaded by the interested parties, yet this time it were not reformed users that accused us of being irresponsible, but members of a new sort of organization: we saw the birth of a self-help movement of non-reformed drug users. The intrusion of these non-reformed drug users made all the difference, perhaps not from a legal point of view, but in any case from the point of view of the social workers and therapists. Of course, those engaged in this struggle constituted a tiny minority, yet they have changed the way we look at the others. One of the (meager) results of their intrusion was the start of policy of "reducing risks".

The similarity is almost perfect between on the one hand the discourse of the traditional drug experts and on the other hand that of the "responsible" people, who "know" that it is necessary to protect the unemployed against themselves, against the inactivity in which they revel and that turns them into demotivated human wrecks. The organizations of non-reformed drug users succeeded in making traditional drug experts sound ridiculous as they pointed out that the ban on drugs itself had pernicious effects that are more dangerous than the drugs consumed. And what if we were to say that unemployment indeed exposes to certain risks, yet that the current regulations do not reduce them, but actually increase them. And if we were to say that the fact that the unemployed are forbidden to do anything at all except look for a job-i.e. they are forbidden to join forces, work together, organise themselves in order to live their lives and not merely survive (except if they do so clandestinely)-in fact increases the "risks of unemployment". Of course we should not stop helping those who claim they need help-but stop singing the great sad song of the drama of "the isolation of the unemployed", which is in fact imposed on them.

When I hear those who talk compassionately and with academic zeal about the pitfalls of unemployment, I hear the old-fashioned shrinks specialized in drug addiction, or respectable ladies of days gone by engaged in charitable work that will improve the morals of the poor working class.

Actually, the unemployed are not the only people whose fate experts seek to improve despite themselves. Today, even at universities, which are supposed to be places where a selected group of people enjoy time to think and understand what questions need to be asked instead of accepting ready-made questions, it turns out that we have to understand how irresponsible we have been, that we have to be competitive, that we to have find a niche, that we have to wake up and be prepared to be evaluated according to criteria that will define our degree of "excellence". And we are told that "the party is over." I am not sure what party is being referred to, but on the other hand I do remember this imaginative decade, some thirty years ago, that has been smothered to death. In the 1970s, that which we call neoliberalism was simply inconceivable. Sociologists seriously asked questions about "the leisure society" that was to come. In 1977 the Adrets collective estimated that working hours could be reduced to two hours a day or one week a month, or one year in four: that would be the necessary working time "linked" to the functioning of a society which-that went without saying-had banned waste and overconsumption, i.e. a society that would reinvent itself without capitalism. Something was moving and the idea of a "more democratic" university belongs to that epoch. A democratic university would open up to those who are nowadays considered as a burden, as the prevailing view is that competition takes place at the level of the "winners"-ambitious students from the entire world are invited to study at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management, not at the Institute for Labour Sciences! What was simmering in the 70s and had to do with the right to laziness has been eradicated. We may well wonder if the neoliberal offensive could not be considered a true sorcery attack, wickedly, obstinately, blindly undertaking to kill the sense of the possible that was then starting to sprout.

I have just reread the famous pamphlet Rosa Luxemburg published in 1915 under the pseudonym Junius, with the famous reference to Engels' saying about the choice between "socialism or barbarism". She lent the words a new dramatic intensity, as she wrote during the First World War, precisely at a moment when novel shades of barbarism imposed themselves on humankind. I was struck by the topicality of the passages in which she denounces the great betrayal: the social democrats' acceptance of the war. If in these passages we replace "war", meaning blood, trenches and grenades, by "economic war", meaning desperation, humiliation and people being laid off, we can doubtlessly speak of a great betrayal, of a war that all those who govern us, including the social democrats, have accepted as the only possible future. And when we read that "millions of proletarians fall on the field of shame, fratricide and self-mutilation, with on their lips a slave song", we no longer hear machine guns, but the gentle advice of gentle social workers that want to encourage integration and "empowerment". Competitiveness is indeed the sweet consensual euphemism for a war that destroys all solidarity, the possibility to think and imagine. The slave song we are so familiar with, is intended to urge people to continually recycle themselves, to urge them to preserve the capital that constitutes their appeal or to reap its fruits, to urge them to send the right signal, i.e. a cry for a "job"-no matter what kind of job. And of course, like in every war, we also hear the cry "down with the deserters": the "bad" unemployed, those who do not "really" try to find a job.

When in the 1990s, I heard trade union officials protest that the unemployed were not lazy, that they were "really" looking for a job, I understood what Rosa Luxemburg meant with "field of shame" and it made me decide to become politically involved to fight the poison spreading through our lives. We knew that underemployment was henceforth part of the employers' strategy-there were these slim-downs and rationalizations at the time-but we accepted the legitimacy of the accusation about "bad" unemployed" who "took advantage of the system". And thus we also accepted that the unemployed were a category of people who had to be put under surveillance: they were suspects, people who were potentially guilty. We should not feel pity for the black sheep! It is this blatant, almost schizophrenic lack of coherence between the systematic creation of underemployment and the categorical imperative that the unemployed "should do everything" to find a job-with warnings of measures that will be taken against the idle, and increasing persecutions that are today going onward and upward-that has made me think that Rosa Luxemburg was actually referring to our time and age. And it is not merely to expose this that I bring up this link, but rather to learn how to address it, i.e. how can we resist not only the enemy, but also the poison of mobilization that is instilled in us.

For it is indeed a complete and full mobilization that the unemployed are subjected to, as they have to compete for jobs that are increasingly hypothetic. Actually, those who have a job and those who don't have, are mobilised in much the same way: the former for the sacred cause of competitiveness, the latter under the surveillance of an army of "minions", as they are required to prove their motivation to sell themselves at whatever price, turn themselves in a sought-after commodity, be prepared to seduce. In short: they have to prostitute themselves, not in exchange for a steady job-there are a thousand well-motivated candidates for ten jobs-but just to show incessantly that they remain mobilized.

It is therefore little surprising that some people seek to avoid this sort of empty servitude, and perhaps the director of the public employment agency receives letters of this kind: "Mister Director, I am writing you this letter that maybe you will read, if you find the time..." (Le déserteur, a famous Boris Vian's song) Of course he won't have time. But my question is not addressed at the director of the public employment agency-it is addressed at all those who have not given up the fight: is it really utopian to think that those who have a job may be willing to defend not only the rights of those who don't have one and who are looking for one, i.e. the rights of those of the so-called good unemployed, but also the rights of the job dodgers, the deserters, those who avoid to work, those who object to work, including degrowth activists of course, but also all those who passively, lazily resist this mobilization.

In my view, if the answer to this question is that it would indeed be utopian to think so, because, let us be realistic, the workers are not prepared to support those who laze about-"we are the ones who get up early to go to work-then the poison of resentment has done its work. Those who consider themselves realistic may well believe that they still think in terms of a struggle, but they have long renounced that which was the very power of this struggle. The enemy has won, because the answer is simply this: the resentment has prevailed over the imagination, over the power to think, the power to create. To fight against the conflict between the good and the bad unemployed means to fight against the all-pervading force of the resentment that overwhelms us and infects us if we don't take care. We need to find a way to protect us against this resentment, for otherwise we are forced on the defensive and we will fight with our back against the wall. We will be nothing but a crowd of meek workmen, always ready to break into a slave song as soon as our masters announce that "jobs are threatened"-save our jobs, please, even if it should kill the planet.

In one of his short stories, Melville tells us about Bartleby, a true hero of the right to laziness, who refuses the tasks proposed to him. Bartleby works as a clerk at a lawyer's office. To every request by his boss, he reacts politely but firmly, "I would prefer not to." What fascinates me in this story, is that the lawyer, who is at first merely intrigued, then obsessed, is finally ready to do anything, even give him his place as lawyer, if only he were to step back into line. The story ends with the lawyer's final villainy, preferring to move his office and leaving Batleby as a gift for the new occupants. Bartleby ends up in prison, where he "prefers not to eat." The story makes me wonder what they live through, those who are supposed to "help" the unemployed to find a job, those who are asked to spot the "bad unemployed" and punish them, who have to "make the numbers", who have to exclude people, their hearts grieving, until they have no feeling left in their hearts to grieve. The common element with Melville's story is that at a certain moment, Bartleby's employer is ready to let him live as he wants, but his clients, who are met with the same polite refusal as the lawyer, are outraged by the clerk's behaviour and put pressure on his employer to sack him. Perhaps that pressure has nothing to do with the pressure experienced by those who have to supervise the unemployed. Yet in both cases the point is not a matter of good will or good intentions. Protection against resentment as expressed in the exclamation "let him work like anyone else" needs practical imagination, the invention of ways that make it possible to resist pressure collectively. The collective indifference to the fate of the unemployed who do not succeed in proving that they are not "bad", isolates those workers who are officially in charge of "helping" them to find a job, and have to choose between anaesthesia and the threat to their own work. It exposes them to finally side with the torturers. That, at least, should make worker organizations think!

Gilles Deleuze claimed that the difference between right and left-to the extent that it is not just a matter of the position of the cursor on the screen-is this: the right is perfectly content if people obey, whatever they obey to; for the left, however, it is vital, really vital, that people think, i.e. that people are capable of actively eluding the ready-made problems that present themselves to them and that they are able to create problems in their own way. It is in this context that we should view the right to laziness, the right to dodge work, the right not to subject oneself to blind mobilization, to the demand to become active. These rights follow the tradition of a struggle that in the past has resulted in the invention of our world and that in the future will be essential if this future makes its crucial to address the problem of work and production.

It is thus not a matter of singing the praise of laziness as an individual choice, i.e. it is not about supporting for example a "good solution" such as a universal allowance that would allow the lazy or those who have been defeated by life itself to live a life of misery on the fringe of our "active" society-"and they shouldn't complain for that matter, after all it's the life they've chosen." Vae victis. The neoliberal model of the individual choice has nothing to do with the sort of fight that invents things, that activates the imagination, that creates a bond between people, instead of resulting in the dream of the enemy: competition and rivalry. Rights are not granted to people-they are invented and conquered, and the conquest of the right to dodge mobilization for work does not involve that one resigns to a two-speed society, as some used to claim. If this right is achieved by struggle, it may result in the creation of new bonds between those who have work and those who have not.

And though it is really a minor objective with respect to that which awaits us, it is above all the feasible resumption of the impulse of invention that constitutes the legitimate proud of the labour movement-it is about the creation of rights that are not meant to benefit in first instance those who fight for them, rights that embody solidarity; it is about the creation of a world in which solidarity is no idle word, a world that is not ruled by the idea of every man for himself, which is the world the enemy seeks to create. And let no one say that is merely about reforms, that we should accept that we must renounce the righteous fight for full employment, with a general reduction of working time. The refusal to hunt down the "bad" unemployed, the "lazy", would instead translate into a reclaiming of the history of a solidary inventiveness, into a rejection of the submission the enemy has been preaching for the last thirty years. It will, finally, translate into challenging the operation of eradication of the sense of the possible that was intended to separate us from this history.

To fight against the holy duty to find a job, no matter what kind of job, or rather, against the necessity to pretend that those "who really want" actually can find a job if they try hard enough has nothing to do with accepting organized unemployment. Such a fight creates collective imagination, including even those who really and desperately look for a job. It is a fight that like all non-reformist fights, tests our links with the established order.

Kind-hearted people will point out that there is no right without duty; others will refer to the threat of moonlighting and of the collapse of the social security system it involves; still others will say that work is a central value in our society and that unemployment involves the threat of exclusion. As if the "lazy" unemployed have to be sacrificed to prevent the collapse of "our" world, to avoid that our world disintegrates or ends up in chaos. As if there are no good reasons to refuse being forced to integrate in this world. As if it were possible to assess the "value" of work in a world in which those who are not pensioned, those who do not live off some annuity, are all condemned "to do nothing that could benefit them in any way, be it financial or material." As to the realists, they will say, "that won't do, because the workers will never accept that people are paid for doing nothing, and what's more, for not even having to try to do something." The realists will thus confirm that the history of the working-class invention has come to an end, and that from now on we have to accept this one thing that condemns every invention: the resentment of those who have been humiliated, who are under pressure, who are afraid to lose that which is essentially their life-a resentment that is directed against those who try to live a different life. Both the kind-hearted people and the realists will tell us that capitalism has won. That implies that what is awaiting us, given the dire prospects for the next decades is a future of social ravages and still unheard of barbarism. It would also mean that we have lost the imagination to fight, the imagination to create, which would enable us to escape that sort of future.

Today, to fight for the right to laziness, means to regain the strength not to make common cause with the enemy, not to give in to the resentment that is instilled into us, not to accept the slave songs we are required to sing. It means to (re)claim the initiative in a situation where barbarism seems to have won.

Note on the title of this article: translation by XXXXXX of « Le droit à la paresse, une revendication urgente », in Le droit à la paresse, nécessaire, urgent ?!, ed. Michel Majoros, Université Libre de Bruxelles, on line 

Isabelle Stengers is a philosopher and works at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. In her early books, written with Ilya Prigogine, she addressed the role played by physics with regard to both the world view physics has inspired and the model of science it represents. She then extended her reflections to the production of knowledge and the role of scientific authority in our society. That lead her to become politically involved, with a focus on the necessity to reclaim the problems of the present and future by those concerned (La sorcellerie capitaliste, with Philippe Pignarre, 2005, translated as Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell, 2011; Au temps des catastrophes, 2009, Une autre science est possible !, 2013).



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