In Praise of Idleness | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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In Praise of Idleness | Context


World War I

Bertrand Russell staunchly opposed Britain's involvement in the Great War (1914–18). His work during World War I centered largely upon his ethical critique of the use of force to solve disputes. He championed reason as the best means by which to engage in negotiations and condemned the use of violence and force. Prior to the war Russell's work largely centered on philosophy and mathematics. His career took a more political turn afterward.

He addresses the consequences of the Great War in "In Praise of Idleness." His discussion of the war centers on its impact upon the labor market. He writes, "The War showed ... it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world." Labor power is essential during times of war. A mass exodus of workers from their offices and into the industries supporting the war resulted in a net loss of labor to all industries not directly involved with the war. Russell sees this as evidence that the amount of work needed to sustain everyone is far less than most people imagine. He claims that the end of the war provided an opportunity to restructure the labor market. However, the opportunity passed by unnoticed. He writes, "... the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed." He attributes this to the illogical allegiance to the notion that work is a duty and that more work makes laborers more virtuous.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression (1929–39) that began with the collapse of the stock market in 1929 greatly impacted Europe. The decline in capital in America resulted in a decreased demand for Europe's exports. Borrowing and lending became increasingly more difficult as a result. Britain's unemployment rates skyrocketed with nearly three million people out of work at the height of the crisis. The result was that many laborers and their families starved to death during this time.

Russell addresses the problem of unemployment that the Great Depression precipitated in Britain. The solution that he proposes to solve the problems associated with overwork also are intended to alleviate the problems associated with unemployment. The economic collapse that Britain faced during the Great Depression should have contributed to a reorganization of the labor force. Russell argues that this period in history should cause everyone to rethink the assumption that long hours of labor are good for everyone. Russell states that shorter work days translate into higher employment rates.

Class and Distributive Justice

The majority of people living in Britain in the early 20th century were poor. Russell maintains that the landed elite are a small group of lucky people largely exempted from the duty to spend each day toiling endlessly. He writes, "Unfortunately, their idleness is rendered possible only by the industry of others." The wealthy can afford to pay others to do the work that they require for sustenance. The idea that the poor should have leisure is "shocking" to them. The inequality built into the economic structure is beneficial to them and they have no incentive for wanting any changes to be made.

Russell explains that technology has made it possible to produce more goods and services in less time. Thus Russell concludes that only four hours of work per laborer per day are required to produce enough to sustain the population. Russell claims that this estimate is based upon the assumption that no one will take more than the amount they produce. He writes that "... labor is on the whole disagreeable, it is unjust that a man should consume more than he produces." An equal distribution of labor would free the poor and help people who cannot find work.

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