A few days ago I was writing about Libertarianism and liberty.
I said that human beings have to work to survive. There is, at any one time, some minimal amount of work they have to do in order to live a very simple, no-frills life. Their time is divided into busy working time and idle time. When they’re at work they’re doing things like digging fields, and chopping wood, and other essential work. When they’re idle, they can do whatever they like. Like sit and smoke a pipe.
The fraction of their time that is idle is what I call “idleness”. This idle time is also known as “free time”, and it is the basis of any liberty anyone may enjoy. No leisure/idle time = no free time = no liberty. So liberty isn’t something that everybody’s handed on a plate. It’s actually something that they have to continually work to produce. We’re not free agents: we’re part-time free agents. What we’re going to be doing when we’re busy working is already spoken for. It’s only in our idle time that we’re free to do as we like.
Nevertheless, whenever people talk about freedom, I always get the sense that they regard themselves as completely free all day every day, as if all their time was idle time, and all of life was leisure. They often speak of freedom as absence of coercion, as if people are free when nobody’s pushing them around at the point of a gun. But, as I see it, take away the gun, and what people have isn’t complete freedom, but the freedom that their idleness permits them.
Economists very often talk this way quite explicitly. They very often regard complete leisure as the datum of human life. This leisure is then foregone making things which provide pleasure or satisfaction. It always strikes me as a vision of a playground world in which people make and sell each other pretty things, like necklaces and perfumes and footballs and After Eight chocolates. In a playground world, the only things on sale are toys and luxuries and amusements.
In fact it seems to me that most current political problems grow out of seeing life as a playground, and the economy as a sort of game that we all play, making and selling each other pretty things. And we can change the rules of the game. Socialists, for example, are people who believe that all we need to do to make a better and fairer game, is to change the rules of our current game of Capitalism to those of a new game called Socialism. All concerned seem to believe that we can change the rules in whatever way we like, and that all that’s needed for the new game to be successful is for everyone to agree to a new set of rules. But the Socialists are opposed by people who like the game of Capitalism, and don’t want anyone taking away their freedom to play their preferred game. They talk a lot about a “free society” and a “free market”. They often talk about “level playing fields” as well. And they say that in all games there are “winners and losers”, and the Socialist game in which everyone wins is a lousy game. Playing “competitive games” is, they insist, ordinary human nature. Socialist games would always be boring 5-5 draws.
I sometimes think that competitive games like football and rugby are as important as they are in modern culture precisely because they ritually portray the world as people imagine it to be: as a game, and as a competitive game.
Yet this is a comparatively new phenomenon. Football clubs only started springing up in the late 19th century, which is when the Football Association was first formed. Somehow or other, the English don’t seem to have played very much football before then. All these games – cricket, football, rugby, golf, etc – seem to have made their appearance around about the same time.
Games like football and cricket and golf require a lot of idle time, and one of the simplest explanations why the mediaeval English weren’t spending much of their time playing these sorts of games was because they didn’t have sufficient idle time in which to play them. Mediaeval life was busy, hard-working life. And because it was busy, they didn’t have many luxuries either.
In mediaeval times, most English people lived on the land. The cities were comparatively small. It required a lot of labour to work the land, ploughing, hoeing, weeding, watering, reaping, threshing. Most of the work was done with hand tools like pitchforks and spades and sickles. But sometime in the 18th century new-fangled steam engines began to be used to do a lot of the heavy manual farm work in place of manual labour. These engines were mostly being manufactured in towns where there were lots of metalworkers and forges and iron works. And it was the owners of these manufacturing industries who’d made money selling machines to farmers, and had money to spend. So the displaced farm labourers moved to the cities, and began to work in factories of one sort or other, and live crowded together in slums. The countryside emptied, and modern industrial cities expanded.
But this Industrial Revolution increased social idleness. It now required less human work to produce the food everyone needed. The work was instead mostly being done by coal-powered steam-driven engines, on the farms, in cotton and steel mills, in mines and on railways. And with increased social idleness, there was an increased demand for pretty things like Wedgwood glazed pottery and William Morris wallpaper. And with increased social idleness there was much more of the idle time that was needed to play football and cricket, and to visit the beach at Blackpool. And this was when all these football clubs like Everton and Chelsea and Wolverhampton Wanderers all started up, and football became a religion.
Not all the idle time was welcome. Sometimes people became involuntarily idle when they didn’t want to be. This is usually called “unemployment”. Sometimes the economy would boom and there’d be lots of work for everybody, but then there’d be a bust or slump, and there wouldn’t be much work, and people would lose their jobs.
The Industrial Revolution that began in the 18th century continued through the 19th and 20th century. In the 20th century it brought all sorts of new tools powered by ever-smaller and more efficient engines – like personal motor cars and aircraft and washing machines and lawnmowers and hairdriers and computers and telephones and radios and TVs. And social idleness has kept on rising. There are more and more luxuries and amusements and pretty things than there ever were. Over a few centuries, Britain has been following an S-curve growth in social idleness. It’s an S-curve because idleness has a top limit.
Over the space of a few short centuries we’ve flipped from a poor, hard-working, agrarian mediaeval world to a relatively idle, rich, industrial modern world. In that mediaeval world, life was brief and sorrowful, and the best that anyone could hope for was a better life in “the world to come”. This world was a “vale of tears”, and the sooner the pilgrim could pass through it, the better. In churches on Sundays, mediaeval man prayed for the end of this fallen world, and for the swiftest salvation.
Not so modern man. His church is the football stadium, and he wants to live forever. If life had seemed like unending toil for mediaeval man, for modern man it seems more like unending leisure. For modern man, leisure seems like the datum of human life. He expects it. And liberty too. He even feels he has a right to it.
We have forgotten that it was all quite different not very long ago. We have forgotten our own history. We have forgotten where we came from.
I really do think that modern politics is playground politics. It’s about what game we’re all going to play. Or who is going to bully whom into playing what, as everyone tries to get their own way. It’s the infantilisation and trivialisation of politics.