The growing “antiwork” movement has roots in ancient Greece, writes Tom Hodgkinson
The American “antiwork” movement – or at least its most visible expression, a forum on Reddit – has grown to the point at which even the Today Programme and the Financial Times have taken notice.
I am a lover of the FT, even though I don’t understand it or feel much fondness for the greedy old white guys you’ve never heard of who dominate its pages. Today I read the following baffling but strangely beautiful headlines: “Short sellers tuck into Beyond Meat”, “Mishcon de Reya: City law firm’s IPO roadshow gets off to a bumpy start.” “TPG’s IPO cements fee shift for private equity firms going public.” “Rocco Commisso bought a football club. Then the trouble started.” “Flipdish valued at $1bn in Tencent-led funding round.” (Isn’t Tencent a rapper? Certainly sounds like one.)
Anyway, the “antiwork” forum clearly has a lot in common with the Idler. They call themselves “idlers” for one thing, and like the same people. One of their heroes is the US academic Benjamin Hunnicutt, who wrote a great book called Free Time which documents the two centuries old campaign to reduce working hours.
“We maybe consider that there might be an alternative to living our lives in thrall to the wealthiest among us, serving their profit,” Hunnicutt said. “Maybe there are other things to do with our lives than piling up profits for those that are ultra-rich, and taking that time, reclaiming that time.” In other words, stop working for the people profiled in the kind of people you read about in the FT and do something you want to do instead.
Perhaps the original “antiwork” philosophers were people like Socrates and Diogenes who wandered around ancient Athens doing very little. One story goes that Diogenes, who was nicknamed the “dog-philosopher”, had only one possession, a wooden bowl. He was going for a walk in the woods and came across a peasant boy who was kneeling by a stream and drinking water from it, using his cupped hands. On seeing this admirable example of self-sufficiency, Diogenes looked at his bowl, said ”what an absurd encumbrance!” and flung it into the distance.
Socrates was not quite as extreme but appeared to live reasonably despite not having a job. He certainly had a lot of fun drinking wine and talking with his mates Alcibiades and Aristophanes, though his wife Xanthippe reputedly emptied a chamber pot over his head when he rolled up one morning after an all-nighter. The antiwork or philosophical life does not always, perhaps, sit happily with the demands of family.
When you start looking, “antiwork” thinkers are everywhere. The nineteenth-century anarchists and socialists like the generously bearded Kropotkin and William Morris used the term “wage slavery” to describe miserable jobs that people did simply for the money. This was also of course the century of Blake’s “dark satanic mills”.
In the early twentieth century, Bertrand Russell and Maynard Keynes dreamed of a shorter working week. Hippies and punks took up the mantle in the late twentieth century. Johnny Rotten sang “we don’t work, we just feed, that’s all I need” and Joe Strummer declared, in “Career Opportunities”: “I won’t open a letter bomb for you.”
There’s plenty of antiwork material in the new issue of the Idler, which has now been mailed out to subscribers, a little late, and will be landing on doormats over the next few days, at least in the UK. Subscribers can take a look at the digital version now, if you like, by clicking here.
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