Thursday, March 11, 2021

William Godwin's ethic of leisure and the riddle of social justice

In An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) William Godwin declared, "the object, in the present state of society, is to multiply labour; in another state, it will be to simplify it." In The Enquirer (1797), he affirmed, "[t]he genuine wealth of man is leisure, when it meets with a disposition to improve it. All other riches are of petty and inconsiderable value." "Is there not a state of society practicable," he asked in conclusion, "in which leisure shall be made the inheritance of every one of its members?"

In Thoughts on Man (1831), Godwin repeatedly emphasized the proposition that, "every human creature is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him." Leisure was indispensable to fulfilling that endowment in that "occupation, which arises contingently" was "often not less earnest and intent in its pursuits" than the "prescribed" occupation of a trade or profession. 

Given Godwin's Calvinist upbringing, theological training, and self-professed lifelong "vocation as a missionary," it is plausible to construe Godwin's consecration of leisure as a critique and reformulation of Calvin's doctrine of the worldly calling, the doctrine crudely handed down to posterity as the Protestant work ethic. Adding consequence and mystique to Godwin's leisure ethic is its hitherto overlooked influence on Karl Marx's analysis of surplus value in the Grundrisse through the intermediary of an "anonymous" 1821 pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties.


Anonymous said...

Really interesting as always, but I continue to have a problem. There is an endless amount of rewarding work to be done but you never respond to that. Look at India and look at China, and look at how China over time made work rewarding enough to end severe poverty for hundreds of millions of people and this is just the beginning for work in China.

I love my work and I am not alone, and I want more and more people to feel this way.

Sandwichman said...

"There is an endless amount of rewarding work to be done but you never respond to that."

Oh, but I do.

Leacock imagined an observer looking down from the moon on a production process that stopped short of producing enough necessities, and then again stopped short of producing enough comforts to shift "while still stopping short of a general satisfaction, to the making of luxuries and superfluities."

The issue is not just there is "work to be done" but what work, producing what, for whom. It is a qualitative, not a quantitative matter. Providing enough necessities and enough comforts for everyone is not a matter of redistributing what is produced. It is not a matter of producing more. It is a matter of redirecting the priorities of who production is supposed to serve. Here is the full quote from Leacock:

"Here then is the paradox.

"If the ability to produce goods to meet human wants has multiplied so that each man accomplishes almost thirty or forty times what he did before, then the world at large ought to be about thirty or fifty times better off. But it is not. Or else, as the other possible alternative, the working hours of the world should have been cut down to about one in thirty of what they were before. But they are not. How, then, are we to explain this extraordinary discrepancy between human power and resulting human happiness?

"The more we look at our mechanism of production the more perplexing it seems. Suppose an observer were to look down from the cold distance of the moon upon the seething ant-hill of human labor presented on the surface of our globe; and suppose that such an observer knew nothing of our system of individual property, of money payments and wages and contracts, but viewed our labor as merely that of a mass of animated beings trying to supply their wants. The spectacle to his eyes would be strange indeed. Mankind viewed in the mass would be seen to produce a certain amount of absolutely necessary things, such as food, and then to stop. In spite of the fact that there was not food enough to go round, and that large numbers must die of starvation or perish slowly from under-nutrition, the production of food would stop at some point a good deal short of universal satisfaction. So, too, with the production of clothing, shelter and other necessary things; never enough would seem to be produced, and this apparently not by accident or miscalculation, but as if some peculiar social law were at work adjusting production to the point where there is just not enough, and leaving it there. The countless millions of workers would be seen to turn their untired energies and their all-powerful machinery away from the production of necessary things to the making of mere comforts; and from these, again, while still stopping short of a general satisfaction, to the making of luxuries and superfluities. The wheels would never stop. The activity would never tire. Mankind, mad with the energy of activity, would be seen to pursue the fleeing phantom of insatiable desire. Thus among the huge mass of accumulated commodities the simplest wants would go unsatisfied. Half-fed men would dig for diamonds, and men sheltered by a crazy roof erect the marble walls of palaces. The observer might well remain perplexed at the pathetic discord between human work and human wants. Something, he would feel assured, must be at fault either with the social instincts of man or with the social order under which he lives."

Anonymous said...

This is really excellent, and I will think this through carefully. Excellent argument in this "parable."

Calgacus said...

I have to agree with anonymous some. Been meaning to ask you for a long time. It has never been clear to me what is meant here by reducing working hours, by increasing leisure. On one meaning it is something I wholeheartedly support, on another wholly oppose. The point is who decides? Does reducing the workday just mean unemployment? Who decides? The parable above or anything else I've seen here does not clearly answer this most crucial question. Both possible answers, the right one and the wrong one have been hinted at.

The only sane answer is that the individual decides. If someone wants to be a "wage-slave", to NOT have "free time" - they have a right to a job that benefits themselves and the whole society. Period. There are no conditions that make this a bad idea, for anyone, for any society. How could it?

There can be no real leisure without it. Unless leisure is backed up by a guarantee of employment, it's a sham. It might be called leisure, but it is really unemployment.

Sandwichman said...


What you say about the individual deciding sounds "ideal."

What it means is that employers decide how long employees will work and how much free time they will have. The individual is "free" to accept or decline.

That individual is also free to pay rent or sleep rough. Buy food at the market or scrounge it out of bins.

Your "freedom" looks rather abstract to me, which perhaps explains why you have a hard time understanding what I mean by "hours of labour," "unemployment" and "leisure." In your freedom scheme there could be no such thing as unemployment because people who are unemployed have simply chosen (whether explicitly or implicitly) to have more leisure.

Calgacus said...

You still haven't directly answered my question, which is not rhetorical. I really want to know, and assert that it is absolutely crucial to the meaning of most of your writings. You're suggesting "No" here to guaranteed employment. I like your writings much better and think they are far more logical when you suggest "yes".

We entirely agree that the amount of working time for the minimum standard of living should be reduced. My argument is that you propose partially effective schemes, but which don't alone go to the heart of the matter, cannot actually, permanently achieve the claimed end, while with guaranteed living wage employment they can. And further, that the defects claimed for guaranteed employment are infinitely more severe without it. Guaranteed employment is the only way to minimize them. Without a JG, workers could after all do the work, build the dam, put on the ballet. They just wouldn't be paid for it. How a wage of $0/hour gives people more freedom is obscure to me.

What it means is that employers decide how long employees will work and how much free time they will have. The individual is "free" to accept or decline.

Not at all, no more than is logically necessary, by the existence of social cooperation, employment and the division of labor itself. NOT having guaranteed employment puts employers in the position of deciding. They can decide that the employee will work zero hours. The individual is free to accept the dictatorship of the bourgeosie, with no alternative. Period. In the working class hegemony of the JG, the great majority, the working class, the 99%, democratically decides how it will employ itself.

Practically speaking, all I am suggesting is the MMT Job Guarantee, proposed by others who the MMTers don't mention, for millennia. And often with superior arguments they should steal. The democratic state, all of us, is the employer. It sets a robust minimum wage and offers it to everyone. This is entirely immune to capitalist sabotage, as it removes their most-important-by-far weapon. Production is directly socialized. That's how it works in theory. That's also how it has worked in the real world.

The contrary position is the economic analog of a political argument which one sees as late as Kant (traces even in Mill). And which sounds perfectly insane to modern ears - because it IS insane. There is such a thing as progress. Eppur si muove. Noting the power of the master over the servant, Kant argued against universal suffrage, as the servant would be compelled by the master. In other words - the problem of oppression is solved - by more oppression!! :-)

So you are saying that giving the employee a vote in the employer / employee relationship - whether it actually exists or not- AND when society as a whole has dictated to itself and any other employer on the terms, a floor on the surplus extracted from labor, the honesty of the voting process. That this actually oppresses him more than giving him a vote! Keynes called this "the sort of thing which no man could believe who had not had his head fuddled with nonsense for years and years." The "freedom" this give the unemployed is the freedom to sleep under bridges, paid for by the money they don't have. The same logic proves that workers are better off in depressions than booms. Marx called this "political indifferentism" - which apart from a few youthful ultra-left effusions, the body of his work argued against.

Calgacus said...

Your "freedom" looks rather abstract to me, which perhaps explains why you have a hard time understanding what I mean by "hours of labour," "unemployment" and "leisure.

I have a hard time because you never define them precisely enough. They lump together completely heterogeneous things if one doesn't refine the concepts, make clear what context they are in. The natural and easily attained state of full employment, or unemployment due to capitalist sabotage?

Imagine what it would look like in the Leacock parable. Are you going to have armies of guards preventing people from social production, or not? Are individuals going to be allowed to reset "the priorities of who production is supposed to serve" - by their individual action - or not? Will they be met by absolute refusals dictated by the movements of sunspots or not? How will the rest of society treat them if they absolutely refuse to pay for their stay in a hotel rather than under a bridge- because they can't? If the answer is excluding individuals from social production - why, in Jesus's and his kid brother Karl's name, why?

In your freedom scheme there could be no such thing as unemployment because people who are unemployed have simply chosen (whether explicitly or implicitly) to have more leisure.

Right, and that is a very good thing. No unemployment, the natural state that we see in pre-capitalist, pre-monetary economies. Is this a bad thing? Why?

Sandwichman said...

"You're suggesting "No" here to guaranteed employment."

I am "suggesting" no such thing. I didn't say that and I didn't insinuate it. Here is what makes "clarifying" my position to you impossible. You come to the conversation with a preferred panacea and you insist on seeing everything else as either an inferior panacea or nothing. Reduction of the hours of work IS NOT A PANACEA. No definition I could give you would make it a panacea and certainly not one "superior" to yours (in your estimation).

Instead, what I am talking about is a SYSTEMATIC BLINDSPOT in economics. It is not the only one but it is a particularly egregious one. Just as Keynes argued that the hard part of understanding what he was saying was ridding oneself of the prejudice of equilibrium, the hard part of understanding what I am saying is ridding oneself of the prejudice that hours of work are rationally determined by a market of labour demand and labour supply in which individuals are exercising their economic freedom to sell their labour or not, buy someone else's labour or not. That prejudice is as historically and empirically vapid as "equilibrium."

But no, never mind what I am saying. Keep insisting that I "define" leisure, hours of labour etc. so that they will "function" in some rational system of exchange.