Buying Leisure with Labor

13th December 2017

Most people believe that a degree in technology is a more valuable pursuit compared to a degree in the liberal arts. The value that people speak of is measured in terms of how safe a career the education will give you, and how far you will have the potential to go in the game of social mobility.

Take my family, for example. Or even me. I enjoy writing more than I do many other things, and if there were scope to make decent money out of being a journalist in Bangladesh, I would have happily gone to school for it. But I am a knot in the randomly woven fabric of the status quo, and I find myself unable to choose such a career because it will not produce satisfactory returns on my parents’ hard-earned money. Why they had to work so hard to earn money and make it out of a remote village in Bangladesh, and why they believe with utmost earnestness that a STEM education will further elevate our status are only stories from other knots in the same fabric.

In ancient India, we had a caste system wherein people were classified according to their professions and made to keep within their castes. For the sake of analogy, a STEM education, or even college education are forms of “upper-caste” vocational training. Driving, plumbing and so on are on the lower end of the caste system of skills. And to most people for whom this attitude towards education and profession is base reality, the lifestyles of yogis, recluses and bauls are incomprehensible. People who adhere to society’s regulations chase leisure with such passion that they do not think twice about working overtime to afford it. The irony is that if they went the other way, working jobs that pay just enough to sustain oneself, it would translate to greater periods of leisure in a straightforward equation. But the only way society knows is of progress, neoliberalism, and capitalistic work for its own sake.

Even though work as we know it – as performance that rewards us with means to sustain ourselves in the current system - is a source of freedom-undermining domination in our lives, we hardly ever question why we continue to spend most of our (non-sleeping) adult lives working. In most countries, a conventional education provides its pupils few means to examine it. It hardly provokes questions about the framework it operates in. Instead, it steers us in a single direction of what we know as human progress. Philosophers have, many a time, sighed and lamented that it would benefit us to slow down and reconsider what we are doing as a species, but theory can hardly be superimposed onto a malfunctioning and asthmatic system.

John Dewey writes in “Democracy and Education,” “The time and energy spent upon mere life, upon the gaining of subsistence, detracts from that available for activities that have an inherent rational meaning; they also unfit for the latter. Means are menial, the serviceable is servile. The true life is possible only in the degree in which the physical necessities are had without effort and without attention” (Dewey 296). Although the existence of such a thing as “inherent rational meaning” is questionable, I wonder if it is too late to achieve such balance between work and its absence. Leisure is now costlier because labor asserts itself without restraint in the overarching goal of acquiring leisure.

In our everyday lives we have to make choices between economically profitable but demanding activities that constitute labor, and undemanding but unproductive activities that constitute leisure. Researchers Wouter Kool and Matthew Botvinick investigate this decision-making in a series of three experiments. The results are significant, yet merely repeat something we ought to have realized by now - that the motivation underlying cognitive labor/leisure decision-making is to “strike an optimal balance between labor and leisure” (Kool and Botvinick). It seems to me that we have designed our world such that our pursuit of this balance is destined to be mishandled. We devote ourselves to labor in the hopes that we would secure ample leisure for later, but we overestimate our chances of being able to enjoy the fruits of our labor. It is likely that by the time we retire from labor, our capacity for spending leisure the way we initially wished to would decrease.

The results also reveal a natural relationship with research on the phenomenon of ‘ego depletion.’ The term refers to the observation that voluntary cognitive effort tends to decline after bouts of forced cognitive exertion. This implies that vocational training that is motivated only by a promise of social or career mobility can only take society so far. Yet, the incentive structure for the society at large seems to still be grounded on enchanting people with that promise.

Leaving economics aside, we must first address a foremost problem. The definitions of labor and leisure - as “productive” and “unproductive” activities respectively – tell us something. What we regard as progress is the primary cause of the neoliberal chaos around us. We work “harder” and for longer in the name of productivity and GDP growth, in the only reality we know. We barely spare a second thought or question our tendency to immediately see practicality as virtue, and a lack of it as sin. As such, academics in general and liberal educators in particular have had to fend off demands throughout history that liberal education be made useful. Such is our fixation with modern neoliberal chaos that we are too insecure to let education exist as liberated, purposeless entity.

In John E Jalbert’s words, “The pursuit of such knowledge requires leisure and is for the sake of leisure. This does not preclude the fact that such knowledge may be utilized to achieve any number of desirable ends, but it does mean that it has a value that is independent of those ends” (Jalbert 223). Firstly, I do think it is its own value, and it is more. I also think it need not tell us anything about value, and ironically, that is where its value lies. The education we need to acquire simply for positioning ourselves in the labor economy is, in fact, disadvantaged in that its value is limited only in the confines of the system. Sure there is joy to be found in the gigantic machines of the factory, in the precision of the supply chain, but in our world it is overpowered by the helplessness of the worker who is in the factory only because he must be. Many people would question this. “All that is fine, but does it really have any value, though?” To that I say, in Jalbert’s words, “If a meaningful existence could be had by means of productivity and consumption alone, we might well abandon leisure altogether and relieve ourselves (and our students) of the burdens of liberal education” (Jalbert 229).

Of course, no one individual can be made to account for his dismissal of this rather convoluted concept of education, or for his search for utility in anything under the sun. No one person can be responsible for liberating education from the confines we all have happened to create. However, I cannot help but regret the absence of social safety nets, in the presence of which an individual could at least make the choice of opting out of an otherwise inescapable fabric of labor economy without risking losing his means of a bare-minimum sustenance. In today’s world, it is ride or die for most.

Surely the individual wishes to do things that bring her joy without having to look for meaning in those activities. She wants to simply sit down and think “unnecessary” thoughts, if we were to speak in the language of the modern world, where “even thinking becomes useful and loses its meditative character” (Jalbert 228). She wants to find rest. Rather than for any meaning, surely the individual wants to do things without having to provide justification. But in the story of the world we have constructed, the janitor never comes home with enough energy to play around with the guitar, and the scholar who was once passionate about chemistry tires of it after a few years in the surprising politics of academia.

We have long been using a coping mechanism to get a glimpse of that feeling of freedom, that feeling of comfort after a long period without any. It is the process of buying possessions. Human relationship with their material possessions is an amusing one. We may not have enough time to breathe in each word of a book slowly and wholeheartedly, but we can fall back on the realization that work can bring home money to buy the prettiest ones, and ten more. The anticipation of buying books alone keeps the Harry Potter fan going. Whether he would have been able to write his own universes if he had any scope to do so is a question best left unexplored.

Works Cited

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. 1916.

Jalbert, John E. "Leisure and Liberal Education: a Plea for Uselessness." Philosophical Studies in Education (2009) 40, 222-233.

Kool, Wouter, and Matthew Botvinick. “A labor/leisure tradeoff in cognitive control.” Journal of experimental psychology. General vol. 143,1 (2014): 131-41. doi:10.1037/a0031048

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