Nietzsche, one of the earliest proponents of an anti-work ethic, critiqued primarily the morality of the work ethic. For him the morality of the duty of work was operated as a means of control, which subjugated the development of the individual in favour of the impersonal needs of society. While his specific critique of work may appear as an unremarkable call for unrestrained individualism, his critique of work must be viewed in the context of his wider critique of morality and the values that govern a society. Modern society’s values and moral judgements he deemed insufficient and reactive, he hoped for a society which went beyond the slave morality of fear and resentment, and instead sought its own overcoming. It is this critique of society’s values that we must consider Nietzsche’s anti-work sentiment. Although Nietzsche was not explicitly political, the distinction between atomised individualism, as it is promoted in contemporary consumer culture, and autonomism worthy of a mention here. Both Nietzsche and autonomism rejected the platonic idea that there was a defined place for everyone in society, suited to their work or profession. This notion stunted personal self-discovery and led to an impoverished society, centred on control and slave morality. In autonomism, and many Marxian accounts of worker struggle, the shared problems faced by the workers, which they all felt individually, led to a sense of collectivity in struggle.
Paul Lafargue is one of the first to argue for the intelligence of laziness, how aristocratic societies in the classical era despised work and relegated it to slaves. It is interesting to draw parallels to past aristocratic societies and their attitude towards work with the rise of what Piketty terms the super-managers, those who are essentially the modern-day aristocrats, but now do not claim hereditary status for their positions but rather their value as senior leadership. Nietzsche would be cracking a wry smile at this turn of events, today even aristocrats no longer claim the right be above work, but instead pretend to be valuable workers.
Bertrand Russell’s 1935 essay ‘In praise of idleness’, remains very relevant today. In it, Russell examines the incongruence of the view of the moral goodness of productive activity coupled with the moral unsoundness of consumption, or unrestrained enjoyment, noting that consumption and production were closely linked. He questions why if someone were to make an investment in a business activity which proved unsuccessful, this person would be seen differently to one who spent all their money on pleasure and enjoyment. The desirability of work Russell argues comes from pre-industrial society, when there was a class of idle landowners who most certainly did not want their peasants following in their example. Only in industrial society do we have enough wealth and technology to allow greater leisure time. Importantly, Russell raises the feminist issue of unpaid reproductive and household labour, as well as noting that it was finance that allowed us to create this present state of industrial innovation by borrowing against the future.