Time, Leisure, Work: De-bureaucratizing Everyday Life

By Yavor Tarinski

We have become a civilization based on work – not even

“productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself.

~David Graeber (Bullshit Jobs, 2018, pXXIV)

Free time has been, for some time now, undergoing a steady reduction. With the increasing “uberisation” of economies worldwide, people find less and less time for leisure. Our jobs are steadily spilling beyond official working hours, invading – in different ways – the rest of our daily temporalities. As a result of this an increasing amount of people feels overworked and exhausted. With more segments of free time being incorporated into the capitalist economy via the mechanisms of economic growth, we not only feel increasingly tired, but our very imaginations are getting dulled by the lack of temporal space for reflection beyond the economistic perimeters of the system.

Although we have reached a technological level that allows us to drastically reduce the workday, one such perspective seems as distant as it ever was. Already, during the World War I, Bertrand Russell suggests[1] that we can witness the ability of modern technology to greatly diminish the amount of labor required for the necessaries of life for all of society to be met. According to him, in this period, despite the fact that huge amounts of people were employed in unproductive occupations such as war and propaganda, the techniques of the time made it possible to keep whole societies in fair comfort on a small part of working capacity.

Nowadays in many countries work has been further robotized and rapidly decreasing amount of people is employed in the production of actual goods, but despite such preconditions for increase of free time, there is the rise of what David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’ – the preoccupation of people with meaningless tasks that don’t really lead to nothing.

What one can see is a continuing trend in heteronomous societies (i.e. based on hierarchies and exploitation) of time, both on individual and social level, being conquered by the logic of domination – as a result of which everyday life becomes fragmented, bureaucratic and commodified.

According to Russell, historically speaking, spending one’s time in the service of the ruling class was induced by the latter with a sense of duty[2]. It is supposedly one’s obligation to engage in the routine tasks (jobs) that keep the system running, otherwise one might be labelled “parasite”. Who can forget the rhetoric of technocrats and world leaders regarding those EU countries that were most severely struck by the 2008 financial crisis – the latter were labelled PIIGS, because they were supposedly too lazy (although no fact indicated such thing), and thus guilty for the crash of their economies.

One can also think of the famous aphorism “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” that first appears in the New Testament and is later quoted even by Lenin in his 1917 The State and Revolution. In theocracies, exploitative capitalist regimes, or even socialist countries, hard work is praised as the road to “heaven”, “the American Dream”, or “Utopia”. As Russell suggests[3]:

For ages, the rich and their sycophants have written in praise of ‘honest toil’, have praised the simple life, have professed a religion which teaches that the poor are much more likely to go to heaven than the rich, and in general have tried to make manual workers believe that there is some special nobility about altering the position of matter in space, just as men tried to make women believe that they derived some special nobility from their sexual enslavement.

There are voices that demand the reduction of the work day from eight to six or even four hours, but that won’t be enough because the problem is of systemic character. On the one hand, there is the political element that Jacques Ranciere describes as hatred of democracy[4] – the system’s fear of a broader empowerment of the people, as a result of which the former actively resists every spatial and temporal ground from which an active citizenry can emerge. It is a similar line of thought that has led George Orwell to the conclusion that when the ruling classes conceive the majority of people as being simply a mob – as too dangerous if given too much room – that the former invent ways to keep the latter busy even by the means of useless work[5].

On the other hand, there is the economic element of capitalism, which since the dawn of industrialism, as Russell suggests[6], lays too much stress on production and too little on ordinary living. This obsession with productivism (either of actual goods or artificial services) has developed today into what Graeber calls a bizarre sadomasochistic dialectic whereby we feel that pain in the workplace is the only possible justification for our furtive consumer pleasures[7].

So, although there may be all sort of technological preconditions for a life based on less jobs and more leisure, there are deeply-seated political, economic and psychological reasons that actively resist one such perspective. In its attempts to maintain scarcity, toil and poverty, the nation-state-capital complex appears as increasingly irrational, or as Murray Bookchin puts it – as the most artificial society in history[8]. Thus, the question of free time is clearly of a political nature.

The order of the day should be then, to develop and advance forms of democratic self-management that place people in charge of the very instituting of society – i.e. a transition to what Cornelius Castoriadis calls self-institution[9]. In one such condition all members of society will not only be able to directly participate (without representative intermediates) in how social and individual time is being parceled, but also the very content with which it is being filled. In this way one gets beyond narrow workers’ management of the production, and instead opens paths towards its transformation into a joyful and creative activity, with workplaces being effectively embedded into the wider community. If society does not take over, collectively, the management of the political realm – the sphere that sets the rules and pace of our general life in common – then we run the risk of retaining the current economistic and bureaucratic grip over temporality, and simply pamper it with a more cooperative and humane image.

One such political approach will also change the way people spend their free time. The direct democratic setting described above has also an educational character that has the potential of developing anthropological types and attitudes that have passion for law making, critical thinking and rational exploration. Thus, it creates preconditions to not only change the content of work, but also the one of free time as well, corresponding to Russell’s suggestion[10] that we need education that can enable people to use their leisure intelligently. He reaches to that conclusion after observing the increasingly passive forms of amusement that tend to occupy the free time of urban populations.[11] In a system in which public affairs are decided upon on at open assemblies by the majority of the population with rational deliberation, and nothing is predetermined by extra-social sources, curiosity and philosophy may well become tangible characteristics of everyday life.

The question of leisure is ultimately a political issue. A reduction of work time in the here and now is a much-welcomed thing, as it will reduce the general feeling of overtiredness and can provide much needed breathing space. But in the long run the goal should be a radical change of the very content of time in and outside of work. As Castoriadis has pointed out, people power is not a backyard of leisure attached to the industrial prison, or providing more gadgets to the prisoners, but the destruction of the industrial prison itself.[12]


[1] Bertrand Russell: In Praise of Idleness (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp5-6.

[2] Bertrand Russell: In Praise of Idleness (New York: Routledge, 2004), p5.

[3] Bertrand Russell: In Praise of Idleness (New York: Routledge, 2004), p9.

[4] Jacques Ranciere: Hatred of Democracy (London: Verso, 2014).

[5] George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), p94.

[6] Bertrand Russell: In Praise of Idleness (New York: Routledge, 2004), p36.

[7] David Graeber: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (London: Penguin Books, 2018), p246.

[8] Murray Bookchin: Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1986), p17.

[9] https://publicseminar.org/2018/02/self-limitation-and-democracy/

[10] Bertrand Russell: In Praise of Idleness (New York: Routledge, 2004), p12.

[11] Bertrand Russell: In Praise of Idleness (New York: Routledge, 2004), p22.

[12] David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p131.

October 27, 2021

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