Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

In Praise of Sloth: A Reply to Boris Johnson.

Are you Slothful?

Investors apparently view workers in Europe as “slothful” with a poor track record on productivity. This was the opinion taken by NEWS INVESTORS.COM (21. 2. 2013) who praised Jin Liqun, chairman of the board of supervisors of China Investment Corp when he criticized European workers' "slothful" and "indolent" habits.

Boris Johnson picked-up on the criticism made by investors of the productivity of workers in the European Union. In his article, “Quitting the EU won’t solve our Problems” (DAILY TELEGRAPH 13 May 2013) he lamented at the poor performance of workers in Britain compared to workers in Germany, a trend, he said, which had taken place for best part of a century. He roundly attacked workers in Britain for being “slothful” and wanting “instant gratification”

Already in full-time employment as Mayor of London, Johnson is paid £250,000 a year for writing just one article a week in the TELEGRAPH; it appears hired gunslingers come at a considerable cost. But then his employers, the Barclay brothers, can afford to be generous to those who are prepared to defend their class interests. At the last count, the twins were worth some £2.5 billion (TIMES RICH LIST 2012). Our political enemies have millions to spend on their lies while Socialists can just about afford the postage stamp for the truth.

Boris Johnson accused workers in Britain of being slothful but said little about the idleness of the capitalist class he writes for. Capitalists do not have to work. They live a life of privilege and luxury, living-off the unearned income of rent, interest and profit. They invest capital but the money they use to invest in companies and to buy the worker’s mental and physical ability to work has only come from past exploitation of the working class; “dead-labour” as Marx called it. The working class not investors are the real wealth producers in society. Marx called the capitalist class a mere “personification of capital”; nothing more than unnecessary parasites: “Capital is dead labour, which vampire-like, lives only by sucking living-labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (CAPITAL VOLUME 1). The capitalist class needs the working class but the working class does not need the capitalist class. A dog can live quite happily without the fleas on its body. Wage slavery and degradation

Employers consider workers to be inherently lazy and given half the chance will “swing the lead”. Employers and their politicians believe workers will find any excuse not to be employed. And well they might be right; who in their right mind wants to be employed? Marx gives an account of employment which has not been bettered:

…that within the capitalist system all methods for raising productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker; that all means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become a means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment; they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they deform the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital (CAPITAL VOLUME 1 The general Law of Capitalist Accumulation, p. 799 Penguin1990).

Workers are forced into employment because they do not own the means of production and distribution. Whole tiers of managers and supervisors are employed just to make sure workers attend their place of work on time in the morning, work diligently during the working day and leave at the specified time in the evening. And employers always want higher productivity with fewer workers producing more commodities while being paid less.

Workers are never left alone. Attacks by employers on pay and conditions, restructuring and redundancy, the use of machinery to displace workers and the increasing pressure of competition with other workers renders employment often degrading, stressful and unpleasant.

What is wrong with being a sloth?

What is wrong with being a sloth? And what is wrong with being idle? Should we not be living in a slow, measured and stress-free society? Is slothfulness really a vice?

Johnson, as a classics scholar, should have read Paul Lafargue’s THE RIGHT TO BE LAZY (Marxist.org) before denigrating “sloth”. Lafargue pointed out:

The Greeks in their era of greatness had only contempt for work: their slaves alone were permitted to labour: the free man knew only exercises for the body and mind. And so it was in this era that men like Aristotle, Phidias, Aristophanes moved and breathed among the people; it was the time when a handful of heroes at Marathon crushed the hordes of Asia, soon to be subdued by Alexander. The philosophers of antiquity taught contempt for work that degradation of the free man, the poets sang of idleness, that gift from the Gods: O Melibae Deus nobis haec otia fecit (Oh Melibeus! A God has granted us this idleness: from Virgil’s BUCOLICS and ECLOGUES).

Johnson is obsessed with the mystical breeding of money in the City of London and was once asked to debate with the reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain on account of his ignorant track record commenting on capitalism, Marx and Socialism. Unfortunately he declined the invitation due to his commitments on a Sunday afternoon; perhaps mowing the lawn, penning an article for his newspaper or indulging in an in-depth discussion on conservative social policy with the journalist Petronella Wyatt. Such a busy schedule left him no time to debate with a group of Marxists in Bloomsbury, Camden Town. More’s the pity. He would have learnt more than reading NEWS INVESTORS.ORG.

Strivers and Shirkers?

When courting non-Socialist votes, politicians patronisingly refer to workers as “hard working families”. This condescending sneer was used at last year’s Conservative Party Conference by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne to divide the working class into “strivers” and “shirkers”. According to Osborne, the “hard working strivers” walk pass the homes of the “stay-at-home shirkers”; a vicious politics of hate to stigmatise the poor and the vulnerable.

“Strivers yes; shirkers no!” is the cry of vindictive politicians in an attempt to find convenient scapegoats for the marked shortcomings of capitalism. And now we have Boris Johnson berating “slothful” workers” for underperforming. Yet, if the working class did not produce sufficient social wealth there would be no surplus value, no unearned income in the form of rent, interest and profit and no money to pay a class warrior £250,000 fee to defend the interests of the capitalist class. And the social wealth produced by the working class does increase and so does the unearned income going to the rich. The top one per cent, since the economic crisis began five years ago, has seen their wealth increase by £190b (TIMES RICH LIST). And they still want more.

Why give the capitalist class more and more? Socialists do not want employment, we do not want employers and we do not want a labour market with its competition and class exploitation. We do not want the degradation and imprisonment of the wages system. We do not want capitalism and the capitalist class. Instead, we want the freedom to be slothful, idle and playful. We want to change the world in a revolutionary way so it is fit for human beings. We do not want a world shaped by capital but one shaped democratically by free men and women.

The Right to be Lazy

Socialists are not alone in highlighting the misery of employment. The intensity and extent of exploitation is increasingly manifesting itself into an addiction of compulsive overwork where workers are pursued by employers across the day and night by e-mails, fax, text messages and mobile phone calls.

On trains going to and from work, workers are to be found self-absorbed in working on their lap-tops trying to finish that sales report or investment bid. There is no conversation in the carriage; just the tapping of keyboards and the constant ringing sound of mobile phones.

According to the TUC, workers, over and above the surplus labour time they give to employers during the paid working day, are now giving an extra 2 billion hours of free time to their employers in unpaid overtime (TUC 5th January 2012). Fear of losing their job forces workers to cede more and more time to employers.

In WORKING OURSELVES TO DEATH (1993), author Diane Fassel called this compulsive overwork the cleanest of all addictions:

Compulsive overwork is perhaps the only addiction supported by religion, education, business and society. Modern technology makes employees accessible 24 hours a day to their bosses and clients, and the operating philosophy at a lot of companies is that good workers never let up.

It is a state of affairs they do not have to put up with. There is an alternative: Socialism. On our walls we should pin two slogans; a warning sign about the present and a one offering hope for the future:

Our epoch has been called the century of work. It is in fact the century of pain, misery and corruption.
Paul Lafargue, THE RIGHT TO BE LAZY

and

Let us be lazy in everything, except in loving and drinking, except in being lazy. GOTTHOLD LESSING

If we have to work in Socialism let it be an act of pleasure not drudgery; a creative celebration of being human rather than a brutal necessity of nature. We may not be able to get rid of all the “dirty work” but the goal in a Socialist society should be to drive down unpleasant tasks to a minimum.

In Socialism we will no doubt use machinery, computers, robotics, and nano technology to reduce labour to the minimum; producing things of use to last, to be admired and to be cherished. Creativity, meeting human need, and engagement in the democratic affairs of society would set Socialism apart from the stress, competition and exploitation of capitalism in its ruthless drive to accumulate capital and expand value.

Let Socialism be a world of deckchairs, of hammocks rocking in the wind and of walks through the countryside. Let us remember the sloth; the gentlest of creatures as a symbol to the way we should live rather than as we do today at the end of the whip of wage slavery.

Boris Johnson plays the affable buffoon but he is in reality a spiteful class warrior. He dines with the rich at fashionable London restaurants. He knows “investors” want more intensive exploitation of the working class because under capitalism capital accumulation and profit-making is the name of the game.

Treat Boris Johnson and politicians like him with contempt they deserve. The answer to the spite of capitalist politicians is not to vote for them. Establish Socialism and get rid of the un-productive class who pay sycophants and apologists their “bounty” to rubbish our class. We want freedom from capitalism and the right to be lazy.

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