THE COMING REVOLT AGAINST LEISURE
Arise! Cast off the tyranny of the shorter work week! Join the anti-leisure movement and labor longer for less! You have nothing to lose but boredom
As one who has seldom experienced and never missed what is erroneously called leisure, I am perhaps ill-qualified to discuss it. But if leisure means what it is commonly taken to mean, my leisured friends are in worse case. They are not qualified even to endure leisure when they have it.
The nation at large is not qualified to endure it either, secretly considers it a sin and resents those who have it. Few normal men, indeed, but as a rule only a genius or a half-wit can long survive the thing we are pleased to call leisure.
Nevertheless, leisure is our current obsession, our hope and horror, our political faith, our economic sacrament.
Governments point with pride to the nation’s increasing leisure. Economists view it with alarm. Psychiatrists try to cure its victims. Overworked professors explain its beauties to leisurely ladies’ clubs. Journalists write pieces about it, like this one, instead of enjoying it themselves. Everybody wants it. Hardly anybody likes it after a month or two.
Leisure is regarded as the highest objective of civilization, as the destroyer of mankind, as the assurance of a tranquil life or neurotic disease, as the ultimate proof of progress, as a menace more alarming than Russian rockets, as an escape from our dull conformist life, as a bore worse than death and a frequent cause of death.
If we had not turned leisure into a baffling Problem (as is our habit with anything simple like life, for instance, or politics or finance) and spent so much time debating it, we might have leisure for something useful and enjoyable.
At any rate, the whole social apparatus is concentrated on the provision of still more leisure. For its sake Canada has long been living beyond its means by borrowing the labor of foreigners in the form of money; the economy has been distorted, the cost of living doubled and the value of our savings cut in half; we have repelled our envious friends throughout the unleisured masses of mankind; and finally have beheld in the sky a Sputnik gleam, which tells us that in the pursuit of leisure we are losing the race for survival.
All in the name of leisure; for that's what our boasted standard of living comes down to in the main—a life of more goods for less work and a good idea. too. if we can learn to manage it. We haven’t learned yet.
The net result, so far. is a North American continent increasingly addicted to medical sedatives, alcohol, neurasthenia, psychoanalysis, cardiac conditions, stomach ulcers, sex elevated into a mystery and almost a religion, actresses elevated into cults, almost into divinities, private anatomical measurements publicly distended beyond nature into a new mammalian species or a joke, and the North American Dream turned literally into a bust.
A general neurosis and anxiety complex fed on leisure make history’s most fortunate people probably the unhappiest on earth. Will Rogers said during the great depression that America was the only place where the citizen went to the poor house in an automobile. Now, as automation carries him to opulence, he cannot suffer ease without a tranquilizer pill.
With our new machinery, the real question is not whether we can have more leisure—for we certainly can and will—but whether a civilization so conceived and so dedicated to leisure can long endure. Undoubtedly it cannot, as leisure is presently defined and generally used.
Properly defined, leisure is not the absence of work but a change of work. Properly used, leisure could reform humanity, beginning with America, and even in this most barbarous of all ages, could make it human again.
As currently defined and used, leisure is one of the most destructive political, economic and social ideas that ever entered our collective lives. It is even more destructive as a private, personal idea, since only a small minority are strongminded enough to bear leisure successfully. And these facts, public and private, are especially pertinent to Canada.
By its heredity and temperament Canada is more addicted to work than most nations. Its puritanical frontier conscience is more afraid of sloth. It knew nothing but work through the first three centuries of its experience in a raw land. When the chance of leisure arrives at last Canadians are totally unprepared to turn it to their advantage.
Leisure may suit some older, more experienced and wiser peoples. It doesn’t suit us in our present elementary stage of evolution. Yet we can’t avoid it. The thing is here to stay. Still, we need not despair.
Possibly if leisure increases from now on at a reasonable rate we may gradually adjust ourselves to it without a
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national nervous explosion and psychic fall-out. If not, we shall rise in rebellion against it one of these days like savages turning on their idols. One can foresee a dreadful interlude of anarchy and violence if we turn against our latest idol.
Labor unions, inflamed by the tyranny of spare time, will call a general strike to demand longer working hours from time-miserly owners.
Mobs will besiege the factories, denouncing the two-day week and settling for nothing less than three, with fringe tasks in addition.
Desperate men of the new age will smash the machines that emancipated them from toil and imprisoned them in wealth and idleness.
Executives will form a union of their own to resist the inhuman torture of the long week end, the three-hour luncheon and holidays in Honolulu.
Housewives will throw out their washing machines and plunge with shrill cries of joy into the tin tub, husbands will fight their wives for the natural prerogative of cooking the dinner, bathing the baby and scrubbing the floor, innocent children will turn Communist to keep the schools open on Saturday, as in Russia.
Yes, the streets of Canada will soon run with the thick, red arterial blood of leisure unless we learn what is good for us. If leisure means less work it is not good for us. What we urgently need is more work.
Leisure, of course, need not mean less work. It should mean a different kind of work. For men (with the exception of genius or feeble-mindedness) must work not merely to get a living, but to live. Their purpose and happiness, as the great Justice Holmes affirmed, is to function, and without function, which is work, they are already dead even if they remain vertical, articulate and entitled to vote for shorter working hours.
Now, I am not arguing against shorter working hours for pay nor discussing the economics of productivity and other minor problems of that sort. 1 am arguing for longer working hours without pay, an expansion of true leisure. And I define true leisure as man’s inalienable right to work as he pleases when he doesn’t have to, at something absurd and useless to anyone but himself.
The sovereign question, then, in the new age of leisure is not whether we should continue to work as hard as ever, or harder, but what we should work at. Here we can distinguish some of society’s worst crimes against the human person, committed in the name of leisure.
The most brutal and familiar crime in our present transitory stage between false and true leisure is to force active men and women, on reaching a certain age, to quit work for pay when they may desire and require it, and thus in many cases to destroy them.
This crime is committed with the best intentions, and in the most advanced scientific spirit, under the jolly impression that if less people produce less goods the more we can all consume and the
richer the community will be—an economic idiocy that wouldn’t fool a Hottentot or an Abominable Snowman and is precisely like a town burning down its houses to stimulate the construction industry or committing suicide to benefit the undertakers.
There are more refined atrocities than this crude double ruin of the old, whom society has robbed both of future work and past savings. Delving deeper, we can see that our social system has been built on two other preposterous propositions.
The first is that all men should work the same hours no matter what jobs they arc doing, though patently all categories of work require different hours.
Twelve hours of the type of work I am doing at this moment is much easier and much less useful than half as much work in a coal mine, a factory or a research laboratory. Society makes no such fair discrimination.
Again, under our system of injustice the average housewife works far harder and longer than her husband for nothing but her board and lodging.
If you go higher, into the field of national housekeeping, you find that a Canadian senator never has to work at all if he doesn’t want to but is paid the same wages as a member of the House of Commons, who usually puts in a fourteen-hour day.
This, mind you, among a race who invented Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the Century of the Common Man.
The second specious doctrine holds that every worker in the same occupation deserves the same working hours, the same pay and the same amount of leisure, though human nature flatly denies it.
Some men, the lucky ones, are fitted physically and mentally for much work, some for little. Some want high pay at whatever cost of exertion, some would rather have less pay and less exertion. Some prefer to be rich, others to be happy and it is almost impossible to be both. But, so far as we can, we refuse them these choices. The Century of the Common Man conspires to make us all common.
While it is doubtless impractical, at our primitive stage of development, to vary working hours widely in a single occupation. it is ridiculous to suppose and unnecessary to stipulate that all men shall support identical hours of leisure. Somehow we must find unequal hours and varying work outside the daily job for men who cannot tolerate the same amount of inactivity.
A just society would provide incentives and special non-monetary rewards of privilege, prestige and inner satisfaction (the democratic equivalent of titles and a much higher form of nobility) for superior workers in the form of extra, unpaid work.
A garbage collector doing unpleasant paid labor for, say, five hours a day in the age of leisure, might find his refreshment as a member of the Senate for eight hours, without pay or the least strain.
An ambitious senator, on the other hand, would be permitted, as a prize of politics, to escape the daily ennui of the Red Chamber by collecting garbage in the evening. (This is the first practical plan of Senate reform ever proposed and a high gesture of respect to that unappreciated institution.)
A member of the House of Commons, having satisfactorily proved his abilities, could be rewarded with the healthy recreation and exercise of sweeping the marble corridors, shoveling the snow on Wellington Street or cooking in the parliamentary restaurant, if his talents lay that way.
A cabinet minister, after an apprenticeship in theory, would be allowed to do practical cabinetwork, with wood.
A business executive would graduate in time from the swivel chair and actually execute something useful, along with his employees, who now have all the fun.
A surgeon would be given the chance to explore something more interesting and diverse than the same old human carcass, a house painter to paint nudes or landscapes, a poet to eat occasionally, a plumber to plumb philosophy, an undertaker to undertake life instead of death, a broker to go broke together with his clients, a government economist (oh, wild, unlikely thought) to economize. The possibilities of true leisure are endless.
Now, I am aware that such a sensible adjustment of working and leisure hours, if enforced too suddenly, might disrupt all our economic arrangements and result in more work and less leisure for everybody. We must approach the day of freedom gradually, feeling our way, but up to now we have not been approaching it at all. We have been distributing leisure on no principle of equity whatever as between classes of workers and between individual workers.
Hence in a society almost unimaginably rich and continually growing richer, we find for the first time that scarcely anybody is doing the work he likes best to do. That may have been true also of earlier, non-mechanical societies but nobody objected then because there was no time to think about it or any escape from it. I suspect, however, that in the old days men were governed by something besides the iron law of survival.
In Restoration London a passer-by asked a stone mason what he was doing. “I am helping Christopher Wren," the mason replied, “to build a cathedral.” That humble worker spoke the wisdom of the ages. He was content because he saw the full issue of his work. He worked through long hours of true leisure.
If you asked a modern workman on an assembly line what he was doing
would he reply that he was helping General Motors to build an automobile? No. his individual skill is sunk, for anything more than economic purposes, in a gigantic collective process without any ultimate personal meaning to him. He works but his identification with the outcome and triumph of his work, the only satisfying reward, is lost.
Therein lies the real problem of leisure as distinguished from the synthetic Problem of current debate. We cannot cure it in mechanized industry. It is only in the work of leisure, not in the work of livelihood, that we must now find identification and salvation. We are a long way from both.
If you doubt that, look through the windows on any Canadian street tonight and count the number of people improving their minds with a serious book or even reading a good novel, playing a piano, painting a picture or otherwise enjoying themselves in the pleasure of unpaid work.
Then count the number sitting in glazed stupor before a flickering electrophotographic screen and watching other people work, hundreds of miles away.
Who are enjoying themselves, the performers or the spectators? Whom is recreation re-creating, those who do or those who watch? How long can vicarious amusement bemuse us?
Not much longer. Comrades, take heart. Soon comes the revolution. You have nothing to lose but the paid jobs you neither need nor like and the whole world of unpaid labor to gain.
Once the relatively simple problem of producing and distributing goods has been solved and we accept abundance freely as we breathe the air, then the trifling issues of public policy now dividing us will be replaced by something basic—and something understandable to ordinary men.
No ordinary man can hope to understand the national budget, the management of money, the tariff, the farm crisis and all those other complexities that
seem so simple only in election slogans.
But in the era of true leisure, when we have time for important things, we shall find our political parties grappling with fundamentals at last, our parliament arguing issues that touch the centre instead of the perimeter of our lives.
What issues, you may ask. Well, I can think of many.
As an obvious example, the design of houses, than which nothing can be more fundamental.
An optimist by nature, I expect to see a truly conservative party spring up, in some old-fashioned town like Halifax or Victoria, to advocate a revived National Policy of Gothic architecture, Tudor half-timbers, thatch, dormers, leaded windows, good honest antimacassars and comfortable copper warming pans. In that dear challenge lies the chance for a second John A. Macdonald.
Such a bold policy will produce a radical opposition party of new liberalism pledged to modernistic flat roofs, picture windows, glass bricks, concrete and radiant heating.
Parliament will ring with orations on the rival virtues of oak and chromium furniture. For the first time Hansard will be read. A royal commission will study wall - to - wall carpet. Consumers will march, demonstrate and riot against the ugliness of TV cabinets, chesterfields and lamp shades. The Right at last will be separated from the Left, and even from the wrong.
We shall have time also to argue and perhaps to remedy the tragic decline of the nation’s cookery and palate. A parliamentary committee will discover that ninety percent of the Canadian people have never tasted bread, bakers will begin to bake bread, housewives will be satisfied with nothing less and this amazing new product will prove so popular that we shall quickly eat up our wheat surplus.
Some daring reformer may revive ham, which was replaced in commerce years ago by a plastic material, dyed pink. Some inventor of far-ranging imagination may devise ice cream with actual cream in it and thus save the dairy industry. We might learn to cook Canadian fish and save the fishing industry. We might even learn to eat and save ourselves.
Or in that future civilization, where the present one will look barbarous to our grandchildren, elections may be fought on grave artistic issues as politics becomes literally the art of the impossible.
One can foresee a right-wing Representational Party opposing the left-wing Abstractionists; the annual budget of the Stratford Festival convulsing the electorate; candidates running on a platform of more Shakespeare for the Common Man; the musical Classicists rocking and rolling to the death with the Presley Witnesses; our crude ritual dance of
politics turned into an authentic national ballet; the people's taste strictly regulated by the Department of Culture and Refinement, successor to the obsolete Department of Trade and Commerce.
If such issues seem a little premature and academic, any statesman can assemble a victorious party by promising to re-design automobiles and may well precipitate, in place of the drab 1926 Constitutional Crisis, the furious Fishtail Fender Crisis of 1966. None too soon.
Don’t tell me that these hopes are impossible or unimportant. They will be quite possible in the era of automation and what, pray, is more important than the houses we live in, the pictures we look at, the music we listen to, the food we cat, the cars we drive, the furniture we sit on and, above all, the furniture of that cluttered parlor, the public mind?
Don't tell me that politics will lose its interest if it becomes understandable, if the voters comprehend government and governments actually comprehend their own policies. On the contrary, the democratic process will acquire a new passion, the electorate a new intelligence and national debate a new wisdom when, after centuries of irrelevance, we get down to business. That is to say, the business of living.
Mr. Snifkin’s great discovery
To be sure, everybody is not ready for the revolution. Not many of us are like my neighbor, Mr. Horace Snifkin, who retired from a lucrative business Iasi year and, since then, has made his first discovery of life.
He has discovered, among other things, the Rocky Mountains on foot after failing to notice them from countless trains, automobiles and airplanes. He has distinguished a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Pilcated Woodpecker and a Cedar Waxwing, has stumbled on the Russian Novel, built a house, lopsided but habitable, become a fairly competent plumber, painted a picture, attended lectures on economics and, as a successful man of business, has finally found out how the nation earns its living.
If Mr. Snifkin was ever tired of leisure in these forms he had time to pause and think as he never did while managing a large office, making a fortune and sitting in the provincial legislature.
That, he says, was the greatest discovery of all—the discovery of the mind, a machine as surprising and novel to him, on first inspection, as a Russian rocket and much faster, with a wider orbit.
He also discovered the human species, a stranger to him all his life, and realized that it was using not more than ten percent of its capacity for enjoyment. In business Mr. Snifkin calculates, he was too busy to use more than five percent of his capacity but since he became idle has worked up to something like fifty
percent. With a little more practice he hopes to reach normal.
The grim case history and clinical chart of my neighbor does not end there. Though he worked in his leisure much longer hours than in his business, and felt no fatigue, he began to find lately that mere hobbies could not satisfy him.
There is the trouble with most of the theories of leisure now propounded by experts. No nation any more than Mr. Snifkin can long be satisfied without a sense of importance and responsibility.
Only a rare and superior mind can find enough importance and responsibility in bird watching, amateur carpentry, speedboating, fishing, painting, music and all those other hobbies to which the aged are kindly referred by the psychiatrists and head shrinkers on the date of compulsory retirement.
The ordinary mind soon realizes, says Mr. Snifkin, that these occupations are like a gambling game without stakes, an adventure without danger, a drink without alcohol, a (lower without perfume, a riddle without answer, a love affair without passion—all very well in their way but not the real thing.
Mr. Snifkin reminded me of Emerson’s saying that “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” That conspiracy reaches its ultimate in the present attempt to persuade men that they can still be men while doing nothing that really matters.
Since he is an average and not a superior man, Mr. Snifkin’s end could be foreseen. He broke down the other day, admitted his weakness, bowed to the inevitable and took a job. Not, of course, a paying job. for that would have spoiled everything. He took a job managing a certain charitable organization without pay. Last time 1 saw him he looked ten years younger.
His case, 1 am bound to admit, shook all my own theories of leisure and then, on second thoughts, inspired me with a blinding revelation. If, I thought, Mr. Snifkin could be rescued so could the nation, by exactly the same method.
My great plan—1 offer it free of charge to any political party wise enough to sponsor it—is beautifully simple.
I propose, in brief, that as soon as the nation achieves a three-day week, not long hence, and faces four days of boredom, or perhaps five a little later on, it should work one extra day for nothing and contribute that day’s output of goods to the majority of mankind, which enjoys only the leisure of starvation.
With the surplus of production and time we shall have achieved by then, we could well afford these modest gifts.
Indeed, we could already do something better, surely, than the pitiable, humiliating little contribution we are now making to the Colombo Plan and other such efforts while invariably condemning the greed of the Americans who do proportionately much more. And I hold that the one unforgivable crime against truth and nature committed by some of our most eminent politicians is to say that we cannot afford such charitable luxuries and to promise us what they call security at this moment of mortal peril.
But being practical about the thing, I propose merely that we start to share our wealth, work and leisure when we reach the point of intolerable boredom and surfeit.
There is only one flaw in this otherwise perfect plan. By the time we get started the Russians, careless of leisure, will have won the race for the world in a walk. Then our problem will be well and truly solved. We shall have no leisure to worry about, if