Never mind the bosses – take a punk approach to work, suggests Tom Hodgkinson
Last year a book called The Meritocracy Trap came out. Its author, law professor Daniel Markovits, observes that busy-ness has become a badge of honour. In the middle of the 20th century, he says, a banker’s typical day at work “began at ten and ended at three”. But now, “young investment bankers work 80 to 120 hours a week”. This observation forms the basis of a more general point: these days it’s cool to work hard and to boast about how tired you are. Of course it may well be far better for society as a whole if the young banker worked a lot less but somehow we don’t see things like that.
We’ve seen another expression of this regrettable tendency in modern life in a troubling Instagram trend called “hustle porn”. This is apparently a custom whereby the user posts pictures of themselves working really hard at 1am, slumped over their laptop with pizza boxes and coffee cups piled up either side of them.
Markovits’ book is all good stuff but I think he deludes himself if he thinks he’s spotted something new. Nietzsche was talking about the same thing 140 years ago – and again he pointed at America as the source of hustle porn. This is from The Gay Science, published in 1882:
There is something… in the American lust for gold and the breathless haste with which they work which is already beginning to infect the old Europe with its ferocity… One thinks with a watch in one’s hand, even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market.
Nietzsche goes on to complain that even going for a walk is excused as an aid to productivity:
More and more work enlists all good conscience on its side; the desire for joy already calls itself a “need to recuperate” … “One owes it to one’s health” – that is what people say when they are caught on an excursion to the country.
In the old days, he says, people aspired to not work. Higher status was accorded to those who had time for contemplation:
Well formerly, it was the other way around: it was work that was afflicted with the bad conscience. A person of good family used to conceal that he was working if need compelled him to work.
This is why I love punk: it was all about not working like a maniac, but it was a movement open to anyone. It said that anyone can become a philosopher and an artist and make time for reading and music. Aristocrats did this: the problem was that they were just lucky in that their ancestors had killed a load of people thus giving them riches and lots of free time.
That’s why I’m trying out a new coinage: punkocrats. Or should it be aristo-punks? Either way, the idea is that everyone can lead a noble life and become more idle. We reject the idea that high status comes from working like an idiot. Yes, we all need to work to pay the rent. But as Aristotle advised, we should work to create the leisure time to do what we want. Our book could be called The Punkocracy Solution.