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An Idler's Life

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  • Robert Sterling
    Please send as far and wide as possible. Thanks, Robert Sterling Editor, The Konformist http://www.konformist.com An Idler s Life By Katie Renz, Mother Jones
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 5, 2005
      Please send as far and wide as possible.

      Robert Sterling
      Editor, The Konformist

      An Idler's Life
      By Katie Renz, Mother Jones
      Posted on June 25, 2005

      Ten a.m. is for sleeping in, three in the afternoon for a nap
      (waking fresh for teatime). Then a rambling stroll followed by the
      first drink of the day. Ten in the evening: pints at the pub; a
      midnight contemplation of the celestial sphere; meditation at four
      in the morning.

      Who the hell lives like this?

      Tom Hodgkinson, for one. His book, How to be Idle, just out in the
      United States, is a treatise on living a life of leisure and should
      be required reading for the Western world's workaholics -- and
      especially for Americans, who with their collective 415 million
      unused vacation days last year and pathetic 53 percent job
      dissatisfaction rates could evidently use some edifying pointers on
      successful loafing.

      In his early 20s, Hodgkinson was becoming "massively disappointed"
      with the world of work post-graduation. "At the University I was
      more or less the master of my own time," he said, reminiscing about
      his days publishing magazines, playing in bands, and attending great
      lectures. "But I started to question this whole idea of jobs because
      it was taking away my freedom." He intended to become a freelance
      writer (both his parents were journalists), but was chronically
      unable to get out of bed. "I wasn't doing it with any pleasure, I
      was feeling really pissed off at myself," he recalled. In the midst
      of this guilty inaction he found a series of essays by Samuel
      Johnson on the virtues of kicking back and the vital link between
      idleness and creativity. As he told a British interviewer, "I
      suddenly realised, hey, I'm not a lazy idiot, I'm an idler! It's
      something to aspire to, it's part of the creative process! That's

      The fruits of this un-labor came in 1993 with the first issue of the
      Idler, a magazine founded on "conviction that laziness has been
      unjustly criticized by modern society, and that it deserves to have
      its good conscience returned to it." True to topic, the essays and
      articles -- exploring everything from "crap jobs" to the benefits of
      shunning a career, to a celebration of lunchtime -- come out at a
      leisurely twice a year. The current issue declares a "War on Work."

      What would happen, Hodgkinson asks, if we did embraced, say, a four-
      day work week, or decided to work three hours of the day? One
      possibility is predicted by the idler's golden rule: one creates in
      inverse proportion to the time one spends working. Hodgkinson spoke
      with Mother Jones from his seaside farm in Devon, England, after an
      afternoon spent puttering about the garden.

      Mother Jones: We stay late at the office, we don't take our vacation
      time, we neglect our families and our interests. Where did we go

      Tom Hodgkinson: What seems extraordinary is that the richest
      countries in the world, in terms of economic output, are the ones
      where we work hardest. You would have thought that the end of all
      this innovation, technological advancement, and financial wizardry
      should be to create less work, not more of it. I think you have to
      put it down to, particularly in the case of America, Benjamin
      Franklin and the whole idea of a new attitude to money: "Time is
      money." He invented that idea. Before that, time wasn't money in the
      same way; in the medieval age it was regarded as sinful for money to
      be the object of your life.

      But that all changed in the 18th century. The Factory Age took
      people out of their self-sufficient life and made them dependent on
      wages. At the same time, there's propaganda from the people at the
      top instilling you with a guilty feeling around work. You're not
      contributing to society in the way you're expected to. And fear of
      losing your job keeps you more or less enslaved. The best thing that
      can happen to anybody is to be sacked or made redundant because
      often that's when you think, "I don't want to become one of the
      living dead. I haven't got anything to lose, now I can start to
      follow my own dreams."

      MJ: You've written that the concept of boredom didn't really exist
      until 1760.

      TH: That's the date most of us put on the Industrial Revolution,
      i.e. the age of the Big Machine. The idea of the machine was that we
      wouldn't have to do that kind of work anymore ourselves. But you
      still need lots of men to work the machines, and these men become
      robotic because there's no real skill involved. It's like in Fast
      Food Nation where Eric Schlosser says the ultimate successful
      business could be operated by monkeys. They make it easier and
      easier to work the machines and keep the wages as low as possible.
      In the past we had a more varied existence, where you might do a bit
      of weaving, you'd be tending the garden, you were involved in a
      whole range of activities. You still see it now, if you go to, say,
      rural Mexico. Work was mixed in with leisure, and the day was more
      varied, so it wasn't boring.

      If you look at the literature of the 19th century, you get things
      like Kafka and Dostoevsky, who basically write about feeling bored
      and alienated. That's because we lost contact with the important
      things in life like work that you enjoy, or the garden, nature, your
      family and friends.

      MJ: What about this paradox that you do more by working less?

      TH: I had lunch with these French people who said, "Travailler
      moins, produire plus." In other words, the less you work, the more
      you produce. And certainly in my own experience -- even in the
      really good jobs -- a lot of the day is just spent sitting there,
      staring at your screen, pretending to work, checking your emails, on
      the phone to your girlfriend. I realized I'd rather work hard for
      two or three hours in a day -- which was the only real work I was
      doing -- and then bobble about the rest of the time, in the park or
      whatever. I've found that there isn't any correlation whatsoever
      between the hours put in and the quality of what comes out. Most of
      the Beatles' songs probably originated in about five minutes. Often,
      the things that a lot of work has gone into have been incredibly bad
      because they're over-worked.

      MJ: When we're constantly working, we don't necessarily have time to
      even vote, much less be an actively involved in politics. How does
      overwork affect a democratic society?

      TH: What I've found in working less is you start to get a bit more
      involved in the more real politics, which is local politics that
      affect what's going on in your own community. Also, you have time to
      do things because they're fun and not because you get paid. We have
      an idea that if something we're doing isn't actually earning money,
      or spending it, then it's completely worthless. But if you start to
      work less, you can actually start to give more to society, but on a
      local level.

      The idea of a government is to create an ordered, willing work force
      where there's no trouble. I think idlers are generally seen as
      potentially dangerous because they're asking questions.

      MJ: How do you think overwork affects creativity?

      TH: For most of us, the opportunity to become creative is being
      squeezed at both ends. We think, "Well, I've been doing all that
      work, and now I'm going to reward myself by doing a lot of
      spending." What would happen in the days before time was money and
      money and machines weren't quite so dominant would be you'd have all
      this other time when you'd do what turned into hobbies. Little
      things like making clothes, baking bread, cooking, even useless
      things like bird-watching, sketching flowers, playing guitar in the
      home -- that sort of time is gone. And the time we have? We're so
      exhausted, we want to let ourselves get sucked in to the escape
      world of TV. I'm speaking from experience; I'm not above all this.

      I like the idea of becoming [fairly] good at lots of things rather
      than very good at just one thing. So it would be nice to be okay at
      the guitar or at the piano, a reasonable cook, perhaps able to fix
      your car or do some basic carpentry, and be able to write the odd
      article. Rather than being super good at one tiny thing, to be kind
      of average at lots of things. It might mean that you have a more
      kind of enjoyable, complete life.

      MJ: What do you think the world would look like if a lot of people
      read your book and followed its advice? What would it take to get
      people to shift to a less hectic lifestyle?

      TH: Hopefully it would be full of people bicycling along the streets
      and whistling and raising their hats to each other [laughs]. Going
      for long walks in the countryside, and mucking about each day. What
      would it take for that to happen? I don't really know. What I find
      incredibly depressing is, as I tried to demonstrate in the book,
      some quite good people have put putting forth what I'm saying in
      books and essays for the past thousands of years and it just seems
      to have gotten worse. I don't put much faith in the political system
      because it's a question of how are you going to run capitalism, not
      how are we going to develop a different system to capitalism.

      If you do it, other people might think, well actually, I can do it
      too. The book is supposed to inspire people to follow their own
      path. How much money do I actually need? How many pairs of shoes do
      I need?

      MJ: When I first picked up How To Be Idle I thought it was a self-
      help book, which in a way it is -- but it's actually more of a
      social commentary and a look at the history of overwork.

      TH: I gave it that title slightly deliberately because it sounded
      more commercial. I didn't want to call it A Disquisition on the
      Benefits of Idleness. The title How To Be Idle, as you say, is self-
      help, but it's a slightly satirizing self-help. The self-help thing
      always seems to be something like, "Ten Ways to be More Efficient,"
      and it's so depressing. I used to try to do those things, and could
      never remember what the ten ways are. A lot of that adds to your
      pressures: now there's a whole new set of rules you've got to try to
      remember and live up to.

      MJ: Can you offer some practical first steps on how to be idle?

      TH: Part of this individualism is you feel this pressure that you
      alone have to conquer the world, and if you don't work all the hours
      God gives then you start feeling really guilty. If you can stop
      feeling guilty, then I think it's easier to start doing what you
      want to do. The way to stop feeling guilty is to read stuff -- I'm
      not saying my book, but works by Bertrand Russell or Oscar Wilde,
      people who weren't losers but who didn't believe in the work ethic,
      and argued this thing about guilt or wrote philosophy about idleness.

      There are a lot of little tricks you can do to inject a bit more
      time into the day. Most important is limiting yourself to a 40 hour
      week, not working 50 hours or 60 or 70. It's just crazy. It's
      actually irresponsible to you and irresponsible to your family and
      friends. Why should your employer's profits be more important than
      your own family? You're not even going to get any of the profits --
      all you get is not losing your job. It's a very negative system.

      You have to ask, what kind of schedule would I like to work by, and
      is it possible in my life to create that way of working? That
      becomes your aspiration. In a way it's ambitious, but the ambition
      is to be your own boss.

      MJ: Still, how idle can you be if you managed to write this book?

      TH: A lot of people say, "You say you're an idler but there's a lot
      of hard work in this book." It was hard work. As a writer, you get
      these moments of despair -- the black screen in front of you -- it
      can be the hardest thing to do in the world. But it was something
      I'd chosen to do. Also, writing a book is a brilliant thing because
      once you've finished it, you've done it, and there's the potential
      for it to go on earning you a living without you doing any more work
      on it. It's absolutely ideal for an idler. It's like being a
      musician: Paul McCartney probably wrote "Yesterday" in about five
      minutes but it will have earned him millions of pounds over the
      years without him doing any more work on it at all.

      MJ: And idleness and hard work aren't mutually exclusive; there's
      just a more balanced way of approaching hard work, right?

      TH: Yes. And I had that approach right from the beginning. It wasn't
      exactly the old "do nothing all day," it was just that you
      appreciate the value of a good portion of doing nothing in your day -
      - for your mental health, your physical health, your relationships,
      that sort of thing. But also you appreciate the importance of
      getting out of this wage-slavery thing, more or less, and try to
      look after yourself, and that's the anarchist side of it. People
      say, "Aren't you going backwards?" or "You're a Luddite." But I
      think it's good to look at how people lived before, and then take
      the best bits of that culture and try to mix it in with your own.

      Katie Renz is a former editorial intern at Mother Jones.
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