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On the Human Right to Laziness

by Goedart Palm Wednesday, Jul. 23, 2003 at 4:35 PM

"Paul Lafargue spoke satirically about the first sinister acceleration thrusts of early industry: "All individual and social misery comes from a passion for work. O laziness, be merciful with your endless misery!: O laziness, you are the balm for the pains!"

On the Human Right to Laziness

The German Chancellor in the Struggle against State-Subsidized Laziness

By Goedart Palm

[This article published in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis April 9, 2001 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Linda Evangelista wouldn’t make chancellor Schroder happy. The top model said she wouldn’t even get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day. Perhaps some recipients of income support and unemployment benefits see life similarly when work under 1000DM monthly is offered them. Now this idleness will be ended.

“There is no right to laziness in our society,” said the pragmatic social democrat Schroder. Whoever refuses reasonable work will receive reduced support.

The Slaving Solidarity Community

No constitutionally guaranteed right to laziness exists. However a natural right or human right is involved. Christ pleaded for laziness at least in the Sermon on the Mount. “Behold the lilies of the field how they grow. They neither toil nor spin and yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6,28-29). In the 19th century in Gontscharov’s “Oblomov”, the Russian soul (Volksseele) preferred remaining in bed to hectic times and discovered laziness as a meaning of life.

This sense for the leisurely-contemplative life has withered. Richard Sennett described the suffering of the “flexible person” in the dotcom-society. Lifelong flexibility for lofty business goals is emphasized. In turbo-capitalist times, even “sweat jobs” become attractive again since the connection between the economic situation and full employment is regarded as irrefutable. The chancellor’s verdict on state subsidized laziness is popular in the ears of all those who slag away for little more than “sustenance” while others are paid for idleness by the social welfare office. Resentment helped him to a good election outcome.

Whoever denies the right to laziness is a populist who speculates on voter moods. The economy is regularly seen this way. The chancellor doesn’t need more jobless. The government has the goal of reducing unemployment to below 3.5 million by the 2002 Bundestag election. The number of unemployed in Germany fell 113,100 in March compared with February to 3,999,600. This was the smallest decline in the spring since the 1990 reunification.

The statistical governmental goal doesn’t ask about the economic meaning or quality of work. A “McJob” as a bag-carrier may also be regarded as socially valuable work. The connections between the numbers of the unemployed and economic development are hardly clear. More and more businesses see the real danger that the German economy is strongly affected by the growth weakness in the United States and its consequences for the international economy.

Is the question whether some alleged “social parasites” live more or less in the last socio-topes of German laziness and are completely irrelevant for the economic upswing exaggerated by the chancellor? Since everything is “somehow” connected with everything else in the economy, the lazy jobless must be described as the spoilsports in the solidarian “one-boat-society”.

On the Nobility of Work

If the work of people supposedly ennobles, the question remains why millions prefer to live so un-feudally. Work is regarded as the foundation of social esteem. According to numerous studies, unemployment is the cause of many forms of personal unhappiness and also for rising rates of criminality that cannot be cushioned by the constitutionally guaranteed social state principle.

What is reasonable work? All work that pays higher than unemployment benefits is considered reasonable. The German trade union alliance sees the dangers of wage dumping. According to the DGB, the “real shirkers” sit in the boardrooms where overtime is decreed and jobs aren’t offered even in good profit- and growth conditions.

This is the populism of the opposite side that can point to diets of parliamentarians, fat corporate profits, juicy settlements for departing CEOs and executives with work overload. “Whoever can work and will not work cannot expect solidarity”, the chancellor said. But can those who define the reasonability of work for others expect much solidarity when they don’t think any more about the reasonableness of their own work?

Before capitalism was promoted to the international economic order, such populisms were charged with the tried and tested formula of the “class struggle”. The post-industrial “social parasites” are coming out of the “industrial reserve army” today. Angela Merkel abolishes the class struggle: “We don’t make policy for classes or strata. The CDU (centrist-conservative party of Helmut Kohl) was and is the great party of the middle. I don’t want a society of false divisions in modernization losers and modernization winners. I want a We-society []. That is a society that accepts changes through globalization and digitalization.”

These changes from national economies to boundless global business create immense problems for social systems and their labor markets that cannot be solved in the windmill battle against social laziness. Transnational divisions of labor, labor under virtual conditions and growing pressures of lifelong learning reach the limits of reasonability for employees and national societies. 2.5 percent of present jobs in Germany can be found in the environment of the Internet. The increase of jobs in the sphere of the “New Economy” is greater than in any other branch. The way into the global information society euphorically welcomed with tele-work, virtual businesses and the decontrol of digital everyday work produces hop0e along with the apathetic outcasts of world society.

A national labor market policy or a rigid application of the social state principle will not lead to an international adjustment of human working conditions. The dangers of international outsourcing have intensified enormously through the virtualization of working conditions. According to a bold calculation of MIT, unforeseeable turbulences threaten anyway for the national labor markets since 80% of all jobs in the leading industrial states will be shifted abroad by the end of the decade.

Like other palliative rhetoric, the slogal of the “We society” will not annul the growing digital gulf. Only vulgar sociology believes that the differences between higher income persons and starvation wages can be reduced to the social Darwinian distinction of diligence and laziness. To be sure, the chancellor’s verdict over laziness may be excellently suited for the national pride debate. However Germans by nature are very diligent, particularly in self-assessment.

On Laziness of Thinking

The problem of the chancellor and other “We-society theoreticians” is an atrophied idea of work in which “slaving away” and paid income, laziness and social crises are equated. Economic productivity in the future will be increasingly independent of human labor. It becomes an intolerable paradox in times of a raging technology not to define once celebrated automation, the disappearance of stupid body drudgery and the cancellation of socially necessary work as progress while waving the fetish of full employment.

The step-son of Karl Marx and precursor of Marxism in the French working class movement Paul Lafargue used harsh words in his 1891 treatise “The Right to Laziness” (“Le droit a la Paresse”) long before the development of fully-automated factories and human-friendly robotization:

“The blind, absurd and humanly murderous work mania/addiction has transformed the machine from an instrument of liberation to an instrument for enslaving free persons. The productive power of the machine has become the cause of the impoverishment of multitudes… To force capitalists to perfect their machines of wood and iron, one must raise the wages of machines and reduce the working hours.”

Redefining the individual or collective purpose of labor under the new technological conditions is urged for future human work

Now and then work makes people poor, not free. Germany as a performance- and start-up society is still not ready or able to pay for necessary work. There is no pay for the work of housewives and mothers. Instead with the social proscription of such work, it has become a paradoxical privilege of overstrained families to find at least part-time work for mothers. A future tax reform that offers less relief for families than singles doesn’t seem to recognize this indispensable work. Savings occur where lobbies are weak, not with resources that can be redistributed.

The treatment of non-profit or charitable activities demonstrates that work is redefined. Here there is no salary system that could make this work as attractive as it urgently needs to be in an increasingly splintered society. This work is beyond the stock market quotations.

There is no right to laziness in this society. This should also be true for laziness of thinking instead of presenting creative models of society and work, labor, gainful activity, income and the “we-all-sit-in-one-boat” mentality designed for an early industrial turbo-capitalism. Before the cheap condemnation of “parasites”, the rigidities of German labor law and the high non-wage labor costs for low-wage earners should be reversed. Without speaking of a Manchester-capitalist “hire-and-fire” work society, more flexible possibilities of changing jobs is still future music for businesses and employees.

Paul Lafargue spoke satirically about the first sinister acceleration thrusts of early industry: “All individual and social misery comes from a passion for work. O laziness, be merciful with your endless misery! O laziness, mother of the arts and the noble virtues, you are the balm for the pains of humanity!” However like all satires, this should not be taken seriously.
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