What Happened to the Leisure Society?

David Graeber, writing for Strike! Magazine asks what happened to the leisure society predicted a couple of generations ago.

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

He’s talking of things like telemarketing, insurance sales, and large sections of corporate bureaucracies. And while the political right loves to talk about wasteful public-sector “non-jobs”, the private sector actually far worse.

And all this waste of human potential comes at the expense of the far better things that people would like to be able to do instead, as demonstrated by this anecdote about the career of an old school friend who had a brief but unsuccessful music career.

He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, “taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.” Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.)

That anecdote hit home to me, when I think of the number of musicians I know who make their music during evenings and weekends, fitted around the demands of a day job. But it’s their out-of-hours music career that touches the lives of far more people.

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One Response to What Happened to the Leisure Society?

  1. Michael says:

    That is a very good point about the way markets respond to the desires of those who have the wealth.

    The most important question our society has to deal with is how to keep the game of the capitalist system going without the consequences of any one actually winning close to a total victory.

    With so much wealth held by the richest 1% of the population the game has become unbalanced, but how do we find a morally acceptable way to redistribute the wealth?

    The solution must be to find more luxury goods for rich people to buy which poor people do not need. Taxes just make folk unhappy.