Lafargue pleads with workers to not be complicit in their own oppression by believing in the ethical value of labor. The work ethic that arose with industrialism, he writes, is nothing but a ruse to get the proletariat to agree to its own degradation. Paint pictures, play music, philosophize, and versify, he counsels, not work, not as commerce, but joyfully.
[Dian di Prima] came “into poverty as into an inheritance.” What she bought with this “dire poverty,” she says, was the “luxury, the freedom to pass my days as I pleased, exploring, researching whatever came to mind, writing in front of ancient oils at the Metropolitan, walking Manhatten from end to end, talking everywhere to strangers.” The poverty was simply “the terms of the deal I’d managed to cut,” she said. “I thought myself lucky.”
-Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America
Though I no longer remember what caused me to buy Tom Lutz’s 2006 book Doing Nothing, it isn’t hard to make an educated guess. As someone who cultivates a lifestyle that involves as little work in the classic sense (company, boss, white office, desk) as I find financially possible, it was likely the call of the kindred spirit, the desire to see this sort of lifestyle through somebody else’s glasses. And yet, the title felt irksome. Doing nothing? It is not a state to which I aspire. (Is it even possible to literally do nothing?) I don’t work much, as I said, in the classical sense, but “doing nothing” would be a inaccurate description of what fills my days. What does it mean to do nothing? What does it mean to work?
Most often, doing nothing is defined as the opposite of working, and working is defined as doing something that involves monetary payment. So when I write things that may never be published by an outside vendor or that will be published but without payment, am I doing nothing? When I take care of my daughter am I doing nothing? When I build something or attend a demonstration or read or research or create am I doing nothing? Why should activities involving financial renumeration hold a monopoly on the term work?
What I didn’t expect to find in Lutz’s book was a serious, thoughtful, well-researched history of folks, well, like me. (If he’d written his book a little later he would certainly have had to mention New Escapologist.) People who were at odds with the current take on work. People who wanted to paint pictures instead of get regular jobs. People who wrote extensively about the idle life (and whose activities very plainly expose them as the opposite of idle). Beats and slackers and philosophers and artists. Seeing myself—the way I live my life and the ideals I write about—as a tiny dot on a long historical timeline of idlers provided an interesting perspective. Who are we, where are we, and what will history make of out moment?
In the last five years or so, trading in the corporate work world for early retirement and a more exciting life on smaller means has become a trend large enough to earn it a place in any future printing of Lutz’s book. Some travel, some stay at home to meditate and revel in the small pleasures of books and long walks, some attempt agricultural self-sufficiency (which is about as far from doing nothing as you can get). Aside from the homesteaders who are working their asses off making their living in a very literal sense, the rest of us are living lives about as far from reality as you can get. I’m not saying that reality involves any sort of desk work, but if you consider our basic need for food and shelter and the work it takes to make those things happen the basis of our reality, the desire to work less and meditate more only serves to alienate us further from a life that would bind us to our own lifeblood in a meaningful way. It does not change my mind about how I have chosen to live within my particular context, but I do imagine that through the eyes of people living in a way that I currently perceive as ideal, we, I, would look utterly ridiculous. Then again so would almost all of our other options to “work.”
Lutz comes to the conclusion that doing nothing is part of a balance. The more work-obsessed a culture becomes, the stronger the slacker figures within that culture. At the end of the day, according to Lutz’s research, the work ethic doesn’t really exist. “The history of slackers is the history not just of our distaste for work and our fantasies of escaping it (as well as the history of our vilification of those who do escape it) but also a history of complexly distorted perceptions. One man’s welfare queen is another man’s struggling mother. One man’s slacker son may be preparing his arrival as an artist…” People have a tendency, even when they are splitting the work 50/50, to assume that they are doing more than their fair share, and the other less. I have felt and witnessed the phenomenon myself in communal kitchens. Maybe slackers don’t really exist either, are simply a phantom of our own perception that we are doing more than everybody else.