Seeing as it’s been over a year since I started this blog, and given that the number of entries I’ve logged during that period hasn’t even pushed the inaugural address over to a second page, I thought I’d return to the subject that prompted the writing of that first entry, which, if I remember correctly, reviewers were hailing as “a bold and timely intervention by a writer of unenviable talent, whose importance cannot easily be underestimated [sic]” (The New Yorker).
Now, the idea for that entry was suggested to me by comments I had read in the web journal of the inestimable blog_meridian. So, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, it seems only right and proper that this, the commemorative anniversary entry (mugs and t-shirts soon to be available), should take its inspiration from comments made by the same fellow on the same subject. And it just so happens that the august blog_meridian has been recently spotted making such remarks, in a fine journal entitled Repeat Telecast, which is the house publication of my esteemed and honourable colleague sutrix. The remarks of The Mesembriatic One were as follows:
I recently said to a friend of mine that 100 years ago, at least in this country, boredom was strictly an upper-class phenomenon. Everyone else simply had so much to do regarding the maintaining of the household that there just wasn't much free time. But now, though, boredom afflicts all but the most desperately poor here; and, as Hannah Arendt observes in “The Human Condition”, we've not taught people how to use productively all this new freed-up time.
The first thing I would tentatively suggest is that this is a characteristically American thing to say. Implicitly valorizing ‘free time’ negatively; hinting that work has some kind of moral value that is inaccessible to the dissolute upper classes, gorging themselves silly on so much empty time; intimating that ‘free time’ is a threat to the moral health of the nation, as long as the newly well-off are not ‘educated’ to recognize that the panacea and answer to all their troubles is Work, and then More Work. Stop me if I’m reading too much into it. I’m being hugely unfair of course, and, I admit, deliberately reading b_m’s comments with one eye closed and at a skewed angle. But let’s look at this a bit more closely. First things first: it might well be the case that people had less leisure time 100 years ago; but it is undeniably the case that people had more leisure time 500 years ago. Pre-Industrial workers did not work twelve- or fourteen-hour days for 300-odd days a year, as many workers in rich Western countries do today; I’m not talking about the nobility here: your standard common-or-garden peasant or artisan did not work an average of 70-100 hours a week, we can be sure of that. They worked much less; had much more ‘free time’ than your typical investment banker does today; and yet they weren’t bored, we assume.
Who invented work, or rather, Work? The English Industrial Revolution notwithstanding, Americans, spurred on by their ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ we’re told (whatever the hell that means) did more than anyone else to achieve apotheosis of the Idea of Work: Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, Henry Ford: so many American heroes, so many enemies of leisure, of otium, of unproductive time for reflection. Henry Ford is celebrated as a champion of American industry – indeed as a pioneer of industry tout court: he invented mass-production; he paid high wages; he made a big thing of workers’ rights; he brought a luxury product, the motor car, into the reach of the working man where it had previously only been available to the rich. Then again, he basically invented wage-slavery, that modern attitude to work as a gruelling ordeal to be suffered for five days of the week and joylessly held in abeyance for the other two. He was rabidly anti-union, ruthless in his demand that his employees demonstrate an absolute loyalty and reverence for The Party…ahem, I mean The Company. And he reduced the individual worker to the status of a machine, and the individual consumer to the level of an automaton. ‘Any color, so long as it’s black…’
Let me admit at this point that I haven’t been entirely honest with you. What really prompted this entry was my reading of a short story by Italo Calvino in the Numbers in the Dark collection, called ‘Henry Ford’. The story takes the form of a dialogue between the eponymous character and a ‘spokesman’ assigned the task of coming up with an idea for a monument to the great man’s achievements. This is Henry Ford the lyrical, sensitive lover of nature, and especially birds (who nevertheless doth protest violently that ‘birds are necessary for strictly economic reasons!’); this is a Ford who mass-produced the Model T only in order to set the common man free, free from work, to give him access to empty time and the vast open spaces of the American continent (‘God’s great open spaces’) and the pleasures of a bucolic otium. And as for ‘any color, so long as it’s black’? Well, the only reason for that, we learn, was Ford’s contempt for the elitism bound up with the trappings of fashion and his understanding that consumer ‘choice’ is an illusion that is anything but liberating (that last bit was my own interpretation). Not to mention his antipathy towards the manufacture of disposable goods, production for its own sake. Ford as an anti-capitalist, then? What could be more anti-capitalist than a philosophy that views ‘infinitely sustainable production’ as fundamentally immoral? The Henry Ford of Calvino’s story is a somewhat deranged visionary, a Nietzschean fantasist. But he’s right about one thing; whether that thing ever had any place in the philosophy of Fordism and in the development of US attitudes to work and leisure is for the reader to judge:
‘My position is very simple: the more time and energy we waste, the less is left to enjoy life.’