A Society That Can’t Get Enough of Work

A satirical 1883 pamphlet about workers who won’t quit has eerie resonance today.

Image of a man in bed next to an image of a man working with a machine
Tyler Comrie / Getty ; The Atlantic

Work is not going well lately. Exhaustion and burnout are rampant; many young people are reconsidering whether they owe all their energy to their jobs, as seen in the widespread popularity of “quiet quitting.” An ongoing wave of unionization—including at Amazon and Starbucks—has led to victories, but has also been met with ferocious resistance from management. In this context, or perhaps in any context, it might feel absurd to imagine a society in which workers can’t get enough of work. It certainly would have seemed ludicrous to readers of the French firebrand Paul Lafargue’s satirical 1883 pamphlet, The Right to Be Lazy, in which he invents a Bizarro World where workers cause all kinds of “individual and social miseries” by refusing to quit at the end of the day.

Lafargue, a onetime doctor who became a critic, a socialist, and an activist, was a politically serious man, but in this recently reissued text, he uses humor to cut through the noise of political debate. His made-up work addicts are meant to help readers see the very real dangers of a system in which many have no choice but to work until they reach their breaking point. Lafargue’s mordant approach is still effective 140 years later. Mixed with the longevity of his ideas, it gives The Right to Be Lazy the angry, hilarious wisdom of a Shakespearean fool.

Labor has transformed since the 1880s, yet culturally, many Americans still adhere to what Lafargue called the “dogma of work,” a belief that work can solve all ills, whether spiritual, material, or physical. This ethos is visible today in the persistent bootstrap mentality, or the mindset exemplified by Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” philosophy. Across the globe, we also still see widespread evidence of what he called the “Fake Age,” dominated by consumerist waste; consider all the bath bombs and adult coloring books sold in the name of self-care, or the prevalence of “fast furniture” designed to last roughly five years. In China, the rise of the “lying flat” movement, which sees employees deprioritizing their jobs, seems to echo Lafargue’s argument that the best way to resist both cheap commercialism and the dogma of work is by opting out as much as possible.

The Right to Be Lazy does not immediately seem like a book designed to help anybody work less. It reads, at first, more like an ornate manifesto from an alternate universe. Lafargue begins by condemning a “strange madness” for labor, which, he declares, was not an issue in earlier stages of civilization—or during Creation. To him, God is the “supreme example of ideal laziness,” having done “six days of work, [then resting] for eternity.” Shortly after, he jumps to the French Third Republic, a supposedly egalitarian society in which the “Rights of Man cooked up by the philosophizing lawyers of the bourgeois revolution” had done little to help peasants, the urban poor, or the inhabitants of France’s many colonies. (It is worth noting that Lafargue was born in Cuba and was of mixed Black, Indigenous, French, and Jewish heritage; although he moved to France at age 9 and did not live outside Europe again, he had a distinctly global view of oppression.) At no point does he drop the pretense that his goal is to “curb the workers’ extravagant passion for work,” yet the portrait he draws is clearly of a society in which capitalist exploitation harms workers horribly.

That underlying message isn’t surprising. Lafargue was Karl Marx’s son-in-law and disciple, and may be the person who coined the term Marxism. Alex Andriesse’s new translation of The Right to Be Lazy includes a sweet essay that Lafargue wrote about the Marx he knew, who apparently staged naval battles in the bathtub with his little daughters and loved Friedrich Engels so much that he “never stopped worrying that he would be the victim of an accident.” In a preface, the critic Lucy Sante notes that The Right to Be Lazy, though profoundly influential in the late 19th century, is little known today precisely because of its entertaining and approachable nature: It is “seldom mentioned in Marxist theoretical literature,” she writes, “because as a populist tract it is refreshingly free of theory.”

Reading Sante, I thought of the first time I cracked open Marx’s opus, Capital, in college, and how little of it I understood. I thought, too, of the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik in Angels in America, lamenting, “And Theory? How are we to proceed without Theory?” The Right to Be Lazy shows not just how, but why. Some problems are so brutal and colossal that tackling them does not take analysis so much as courage. Lafargue plainly sees the capitalist, colonialist French society of his day as a hotbed of such problems. His blunt satire is both a model for calling out injustice—indeed, Lafargue revised it while in jail for doing exactly that—and motivation for his readers to do the same.

Marx’s vision for the future of work, as he wrote in The German Ideology, was one in which anyone could pursue the labor that appealed in a given moment: A person could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner.” We got the gig economy instead. Side hustles and contract work may offer the illusion of the freedom Marx describes, but such patchy forms of labor can be just as constraining as, and more time-consuming than, their more traditional counterparts.

In The Right to Be Lazy, Lafargue sees this coming. He describes an “inexorable” push toward production that nudges all but the rich to seek more and more work as pay and stability decline, until “people, who hardly have the strength to stand, sell twelve or fourteen hours of labor for half as much” as it was once worth. Lafargue understands that nobody in this position can escape it by simply deciding to work less—that the problems he is describing require structural solutions, including limits to the workday.

Yet Lafargue is also interested in the more amorphous and philosophical question of workers’ time. The Right to Be Lazy is, perhaps unsurprisingly given its title, concerned with not only how much workers earn per hour but how their hours are spent. In part, it does this by focusing on the difference between a human hour and a machine hour. Lafargue wrote not long after the Industrial Revolution, which he saw as a massive missed opportunity. Many worry today that machines will replace human workers; Lafargue, instead, worried that factory work pitted humans and machines against each other in an “absurd and murderous competition.” He thought the presence of machines should transform the idea of a workday: If a knitting machine can make nearly 30,000 more stitches a minute than a human knitter, he writes, then why shouldn’t “every minute of machine work [give] the worker ten days of rest?” Of course, the answer to this question is that more work equals more goods to sell.

In today’s garment industry, to remain close to the knitting example, machine work has yet to replace human workers, but the accelerated pace that many companies demand in factories has exacerbated the sorts of labor conditions that Lafargue wrote about. Meanwhile, the smartphone has eroded the limits of the workday in almost every pocket of the economy. Effective altruists, the techy philosophy cadre lately made famous by the disgraced entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried, say the threat of artificial intelligence is that it may someday become conscious, like Skynet in Terminator, and decide to oppress us. The Right to Be Lazy suggests that machines have already been used to that end for nearly 250 years.

At a moment when hobbies too often turn into side hustles, and relaxation into conspicuous consumption, Lafargue’s concerns prompt broader reflection. Close to the end of The Right to Be Lazy, he describes a utopia in which workers spend nearly all their time lounging around. This exaggerated image illuminates another difference between human time and machine time: A machine cannot enjoy its time off. We can, although productivity culture tells us otherwise. All too often, life seems to contain little but working and recuperating from work. Lafargue reminds contemporary readers that our time need not be so binary. Our leisure activities don’t need to burn through our paychecks or turn into second careers. They can be frivolous, exploratory, solitary, useless. In machine time, not working means turning off. In human time, not working can mean anything at all.

The Right to Be Lazy is also a reminder that working less has significant spiritual and creative benefits. It ends with a prayer: “Oh, Laziness, take pity on our long destitution! Oh, Laziness, mother of the arts and noble virtues, be thou the balm to heal human sufferings!” The idea that laziness breeds art may now seem outdated or improbable to some, but nobody knows better than an exhausted artist how vital laziness is to creativity. Ideas tend to unfurl when not attended to, but only if your brain isn’t too jammed with tasks to give them room.

One of art’s major roles, in fact, is to facilitate this experience of slow, unstructured rumination for its beholders as well as its creators. (Contrast this with NFTs, the emblematic art of our Fake Age, whose value is predicated on the idea that what makes something art is its capacity to be owned.) In How to Do Nothing, a philosophical exploration turned manifesto that serves as a modern-day companion to The Right to Be Lazy, Jenny Odell describes coming across Ellsworth Kelly’s 1996 work Blue Green Black Red while killing time at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. As Odell lingered in front of the painting, it “seemed to push and pull my vision in different directions.” She continues, “Strange as it sounds to call a flat, monochromatic painting a ‘time-based medium,’ there was actually something to find out in each one—or rather, between me and each one—and the longer time I spent, the more I found out.”

Killing time, in Odell’s telling, facilitates discovery. Lafargue would say it does far more. “In the regime of laziness,” he writes, “in order to kill the time that kills us all, second by second, there will be plays and shows forever and always.” He immediately spins this observation into a long joke about turning lawmakers into traveling theater troupes, but its icy truth remains. The fundamental thing we all have to recognize is that we will die. Time is our enemy—and yet Lafargue asks us to face it squarely, to linger in front of it like Odell lingering in front of Blue Green Black Red. If we cannot do so, we cannot confront our mortality; we can’t face death with dignity. Surely we all have a right to do that.