'Le Premier Songe', 1900 (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

April 24, 2020   6 mins

When asked by YouGov on 24 March whether or not they’d find a three-week lockdown easy or hard, 66% of Brits said “easy”.

Those earnest promoters of the work ethic, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel, must be a bit worried. Are we actually enjoying lockdown? Are we enjoying doing less? Are we enjoying being masters of our own time? Maybe we won’t want to go back to work.

The government was expecting an outcry from the people when it extended lockdown. Please, open the factory gates and let me get back in there! Let me rise early again, and scrape the ice from the windscreen! Let me plod through the rain with my enormous jug of coffee and let me buy meal deals at lunchtime! Let me spend my hard-earned cash on after-work drinks with colleagues I hate! Let me never see my children and let me spend long hours standing on buses and trains!

Tories have long pushed the Puritan ideal of hard work for other people. Raab and Patel were among the five authors of a dismal Gradgrindian manifesto in 2012, pompously entitled Britannia Unchained:

The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.

Football and pop music indeed! Around this time, some bright spark in the Tory party came up with the depressing notion of “hard-working families”, enthusiastically taken up by David Cameron, who, as has been noted many times, singularly fails to distinguish himself in that respect in his own daily life.

Then there is former MP for Grantham, Nick Boles. Boles, like many MPs, studied PPE at Oxford, training ground for utilitarians. He is an enthusiastic opponent of the universal basic income, believing that if left alone, Brits will vegetate, or, worse, write poetry:

The main objection to the idea of a universal basic income is not practical but moral.

Its enthusiasts suggest that when intelligent machines make most of us redundant, we will all dispense with the idea of earning a living and find true fulfilment in writing poetry, playing music and nurturing plants. That is dangerous nonsense.

Mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it.

This sort of thing, as Jeremy Bentham might have said, is nonsense on stilts. If mankind were hard-wired to work, then we would not be enjoying the autonomy of lockdown. Most people don’t gain satisfaction from work, they gain money from it. That’s why they do it.

In fact mankind is hard-wired to write poetry, play music and nurture plants — which is exactly what we have been doing in lockdown. The other day I found myself writing a short poem about the folk singer Sam Lee and his love for nightingales. And I sowed some seeds in a pot. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you have a bit more time.

At the Idler we’ve seen take-up of our online courses quintupling over the past few weeks. When left alone, it appears, people do not do nothing. They take exercise, they read and they listen to learned lectures on Jane Austen and Plato.

PC Plod famously ticked off sunbathers that lockdown was not a holiday. But in some senses, it is a holiday. And the distinguishing characteristic of holidays is not that you do nothing. It is that you are in control of your own time. Holidays can be quite busy. So it is with lockdown. To a far greater extent than normal, we call the shots. We are not slaves. We take responsibility.

At this point the middle-class communists will pipe up: it’s all very well for you, with your 19th-century novels and volumes of Keats’s letters. What about the key workers? Are they enjoying lockdown?

No one is saying that being a nurse is not a difficult and important job — now and at all times. And I am more grateful than ever that the dustmen come and take away our rubbish. But we cannot ignore the people for whom the crisis has led to a questioning of what a good life is all about. And a little less work all round would be good for key workers too.

It is instructive as to the mutable nature of morality, that a few weeks ago, being very busy was considered morally good, and now we are being told to indulge in its precise opposite. Do nothing, save lives. This shows you that Nietzsche was right: morality, so-called, is merely a tool of control.

The truth is, as Chesterton said about lying in bed, there is nothing morally good about hard work, or bad about being lazy.

Instead of being regarded, as it ought to be, as a matter of personal convenience and adjustment, it has come to be regarded by many as if it were a part of essential morals to get up early in the morning.
It is upon the whole part of practical wisdom; but there is nothing good about it or bad about its opposite.

After all, what could be more harmless than lying in bed? When lying in bed you are doing nothing to harm the planet. You are consuming nothing. You are bothering no one. And you are doing yourself a lot of good by giving yourself a rest.

For many, many people, lockdown will beat working. My neighbour is using his furloughed time and the lovely weather to paint the outside of his house and spend some time in the garden. He says he is not particularly relishing the prospect of going back to work.

And on my daily bicycle rides around west London, an alien observer would be forgiven for thinking he’d landed in some sort of William Morrisesque utopia. There are no cars, the air is clean, birds sing, and smiling family groups cycle along the river.

The main issue here is the people actually enjoy the freedom. The right-wing view is that, left to our own devices, we’d just sit around in our underpants watching daytime TV, and I’m sure there are a few who do that.

But in fact, when people are left to their own devices, and have more free time, they get creative. They help each other. They form community groups. They do things not just for profit. We are seeing the anarchist principles of mutual aid in action, and we are disproving the old proverb, “the devil finds work for idle hands to do”. In fact, idle hands get on with a lot of fun stuff — it’s just not working for the boss.

And maybe we won’t want to go back to work. Maybe the leisure society dreamed of by people like William Morris and later Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes will start to materialise. Morris believed in what he called “useful work” versus “useless toil”. Russell said that a civilised society would gradually reduce the hours of work, leaving time for poetry, nurturing plants and studying philosophy. And Keynes of course reckoned that technology would usher in a 15-hour working week.

I called my pal Professor Brendan Burchell of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He has been studying working habits for over 30 years.

“I think lots of people are enjoying lockdown though they are afraid to say it for fear of being seen as lacking compassion,” he said.

He reckons that some people will undoubtedly want to work less when the crisis passes. “Whether that’s 1% or 10% or 30%, we don’t know.”

He also predicts that the crisis will lead people to question that other great pillar of contemporary society: consumerism.

“Empty nesters who are used to spending money are realising that they can be perfectly happy without expensive holidays and consumer objects. And if consumerism weakens its hold, so will the work ethic, because people cite ‘money’ as the main reason for working.”

It’s not that Professor Burchell is against work. “Work is good — in small doses,” he says.

The work ethic is a relative recent invention. It has its roots in the Protestant Reformation — the Tudor authorities were, like Raab, hostile to idlers. Monks were considered to be lazy. It gathered force in the Industrial Revolution when the mill owners required a docile and punctual workforce to toil in the dark satanic mills. That’s when punctuality became a matter of essential morals. And most recently Silicon Valley has invented its own version: unless your side hustle has a side hustle, then you are going to fail in life.

Earlier societies, though, were not so work-oriented. The ancient Greek philosophers insisted on the ideal of “schole” or cultivated leisure, for a happy life, and even the brutal Romans believed that civilised people should enjoy a decent portion of otium. Life was not all about business: they called that negotium.

In the Middle Ages, the great creative projects of the cathedrals were carried out voluntarily in people’s spare time. Guilds were against overwork as it might give you an unfair advantage over your brother in the guild. And there were multiple holy days and feast days when working was prohibited.

Some are born idle, some achieve idleness and right now, a lot of people are having idleness thrust upon them. And many of them rather like it.

Tom Hodgkinson is author of How to be Idle and editor of the Idler