Revolutionary optimism, Paul Lafargue and a new approach to the concept of laziness

By: Isi de Paula

When I went to the latest series of PTC’s Radical Approached Reading Group (six very giving meetings within the theme Revolutionary Optimism, mediated by my comadre poet and activist Adelaide Ivanova), we ended one of the discussions with a challenge for the participants: to dedicate some time of our day to the practice of ceiling staring. That meeting’s theme had been “Unemployment, Leisure and the birth of creativity”, and we had shared our own experiences of being caught in this equation quite hard to solve. Because one of the ways through which capitalism affects us the most is by totally distorting our conception of time. In capitalist logic, time is something to be invested, not spoiled in meaningless activities such as staring at the ceiling, just for the sake of our own thoughts. This leaves us with this sort of time management syndrome so peculiar of the newer generations, a controversial combination of being, at the same time, exhausted and guilty for not doing enough.

In order to understand this mechanism of capitalism’s appropriation of our time, and its resulting alienation, we have to look at how our conception of time in terms of work and rest was historically produced. Such a critic can be found as early as in the 1800’s in Paul Lafargue’s classic The right to be lazy. “In capitalist society”, Lafargue writes, “work is the cause of all intellectual degeneracy, of all organic deformity”. Although over a century has passed since its publication, this manifesto is still relevant and extremely provocative in its refutation of the supposedly revolutionary principle of the “right to work”.

In The right to be lazy Lafargue points out how “laziness” became such a taboo word when christian ethics merged with capitalist ethics to fabricate the idea of “dignity through work”, which the proletariat bought without questioning. And this is, for Lafargue, the working class’ fundamental mistake: claiming for the “right to work” rather than for the “right to rest” – even though the changes brought about by the industrial revolution were supposed to lighten the work burden for the humans, leaving them with more free time. The consequence is one of capitalism’s fundamental contradictions: the exhausted working class, instead of taking advantage of technology, compete not only with each other but also with the machines, afraid of having their jobs stolen by them. Lafargue writes: “The blind, perverse and murderous passion for work transforms the liberating machine into an instrument for the enslavement of free men. Its productiveness impoverishes them”.

“But how should we ask a proletariat corrupted by capitalist ethics, to take a virile resolution… ?” – by concluding its manifesto with a questioning tone, Paul Lafargue leaves to us the task of revisiting his work now under a new light, adjusting his ideas to the challenges specific to our times. He could not predict, for example, that technology would cause not only the development of the factories, but would open up, with the advent of computing techniques, for a whole new range of precariat workers other than the factory’s. Another transformation is the way capitalism has appropriated our need for consuming art and culture and made it into a huge industry called “entertainment”, which demands productivity in both producing and consuming.

If we take it from there, I think we will be able to define strategies to claim back the freedom that capitalist logic has stolen from us. An example of a good contemporary approach to this question is Devon Price’s Laziness does not exist, a critic about the idea that well-being is a responsibility of the individual, demanding of us to be constantly working for our self-improvement. As Price, I also believe in the old socialist maxim that there are no individual solutions for collective problems. Another tool that I believe in is the activism of the language. Poetry has a unique power of turning the meaning of negatively loaded words, such as “laziness”, into something new that has an impact in our material reality.

Building collectivity and making art are both things that require time. In an era when being busy is the rule, actively making time for pointless conversations, writing poems or staring and the ceiling are small daily acts of resistance. So guilty or not, let us give us more time for that.