Bedevilled (Idle hands and the endless economy)

I am a circulating particle in the Australian east coast ‘knowledge economy’. The Wizard of Id armed with arcane knowledge of Microsoft suite. I have no name. I am the annoying man with a clipboard in fading suit pants interrupting your online poker game. Tell me why you have painstakingly organised everything just so. Then I will economise and optimise and otherwise destroy your endeavor—just because.

Or, I will write a report that theorises about a better-organised future. A future that has no benefit to anyone but the leviathans that own us: business and economy.

At core, my job is writing apologias for the digital era. The publishing industry is kaput, so my calling channels into the crafting lengthy summaries of ever-growing troves of data. I am the Tolstoy of middle management; the Tolkien of fantasised problems. And my perennial hero is deduction, fetishized logic marshalled against minute areas of unimportant uncertainty.

My neatly written reports are the symptom of an embarrassment of ‘big’ data. Big data that has grown large enough to reveal the delusion of ‘management’, of the human lust for environmental control and organisational coherence.

But enough about the knowledge economy and its will to meticulously defined ignorance. On we press, to the pressing matter of evil and how we can—how we must—work against it.

Boundless risk

As I circulate and roundtable and capture the ephemera of organisational angst in thick wads, the words of one of my favourite philosophers echo back to me across the off-white wastelands of trees sacrificed to the darkling Management Gods.

What is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders but those who give advice as to what orders should be given.

– Bertrand Russell, ‘In praise of idleness’ (1932) in Harper’s Magazine

Really, the nicest paean that management consulting can ever hope for. But, despite its pleasure and financial viability, it seems improbable that the work of management persists. In fact it seems almost impossible, in the digital era: a period when we have data for seemingly everything—most obviously, the lack of rationality to our managerial quest for rational, economic perfection.

Quite the opposite of perishing, the work of management has boomed. No decision is made without a report into every facet. Every stage gate of every process within an approval timeline: feasibility studied. To what end? To manage risk. What risk? The risk that we will make more mistakes than our competitor—and not be able to prove that we took every consideration. Every single product feature of every single vehicle: market tested. Cars are identical in basic function. A to B, moving matter near the earth’s surface relatively to other matter. Market test the lot. Consult on the results of the market test. Survey sentiments on the consultation. Indefinite, clearly, the amount of work we can alchemise from the simple management of movement.

Liberty machine

How can anything so abjectly pointless possibly persist? As Russell argues in his excellent essay, the Industrial Revolution gave us the tools to effortlessly supply the needs of humankind. Mechanisation could feed the world and shelter it.

But instead of relaxing, unburdened of many of the needs to produce, we in the developed world move further and further towards Russell’s second kind of work. And we have become a master at its indefinite extension. We have huge chains of telling: massive bureaucracies for organising massive efforts to achieve very little. We don’t even move most things our society values; machines do, with our occasional intervention.

Given we no longer need to work, why are we so overworked? Why do I read about investment banker suicides, stress, heart problems, and so forth? Why is the history of human advancement one of easing exigency without increasing liberty?

We are overworked because we must invent work for ourselves. It seems to be a sort of mass, socialised psychosis. Give a man fishing nets and he will be fed forever—and then, physically satiated, he will plan a career that somehow involves poisoning the entire ocean. Because there are two kinds of needs, as Maslow tells us: physical, and purposeful.

And although the modern human does not need to work half as hard as they do, our individual purpose is defined by work. Thus, the success of our machines reveals the sorry truth about our societies.

The good work

Bertrand Russell argued that throughout pre-modern civilization, subjects were conditioned to believe in the morality of work. When society forms, the needs of the individual and the family unit must be recalibrated if it is to suit those at the top. Morality is the method of recalibration.

As Sophocles put it, ‘without labour, nothing prospers’. This is true, if by ‘nothing’, he means society. The hunter-gatherer does not prosper; they survive. Prosper is a loaded term. To prosper means to meet the targets set by society. Labour is the tool through which society prospers. And, for much of human history, society was the property of the prosperous few.

Lords and warlords, pharaohs and prelates can only secure their own complete, unrestrained liberty and leisure through the work of their subjects. Hence, work is lionised, idleness condemned. As with most things, we get them while they’re young:

In works of labour, or of skill,

I would be busy too;

For Satan finds some mischief still

For idle hands to do.

– Ian Watts, Divine Songs for Children (1715)

As the above ditty shows, the work-good indoctrination has not faded in politically equal societies. The deep past is not easy to shake. In the democratic West, we still aspire to work, and specifically to its purifying effects. The only difference is that we now portray it in the language of the individual—their life, ambition; the shortness of the mortal coil versus the heights we set ourselves:

Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.

– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to his wife Martha Jefferson (1787)

Life is lived through work; let the dead be idle. Now it makes sense: my screeds of unread advice are sanctifying. Sanctity implies the removal of impurity, the exorcism of evil. Work is good, because human is bad.

The bad human

To misquote the book of Job, ‘First it giveth, then it taketh away’. That is the universal pattern of religion and philosophy. Gordon B. Hinckley summarised the moral formula for labour perfectly:

There is no substitute under the heavens for productive labor. It is the process by which dreams become realities. It is the process by which idle visions become dynamic achievements. Most of us are inherently lazy. We would rather play than work. We would rather loaf than work.

– Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, First Presidency message, (1992)

Work is salvation, and humankind is lazy. Consider us in the West: our every concept is active (good)/passive (bad). The good life is a mountain of work successfully assaulted. The triumph comes from defeating our callow, freeloader natures.

As far as delusions go, moral work is quite progressive. We are all born equally lazy. Each has the seeds of idle sin within. Never mind that some are born into vast wealth and never need to work; their work is spreading the goodness of their ancestors far and wide, through ‘trickle down’ imaginaries or through actual charity. In this moral schema, wealth indicates goodness. Its fact is its own judgement. Contradictory though this schema is, at least we all know the path to salvation—even if some get a leg up to it.

The problem, though, with moral schemes is that they are not static. We may receive the Sermon from the Mount, the Judgements literally written in stone. But, still, we like to exercise judgement on literal statements. Give the Good Book to the Westboro Baptist Church, for instance, and they will build a doomsday cult upon a few lines of text. As will ISIL, to apocalyptic effect.

Evil in mind

The work-good/human-bad dualism has mutated a little in the developed West. This might seem a natural occurrence, given the massive abundance of production and consumption. Extreme situations breed extreme responses. Now it is not enough to work, to be employed, to defeat the Lucifer of languor.

If I’m alone too long I think too much, and I’m not interested in doing that. That won’t lead anywhere good, I’m sure. If I’m busy I tend to stay out of trouble. An idle mind is the devil’s playground.

– Lisa Marie Presley, date and circumstance unattributed


I have ideas every day, and if I’m not carrying a pad of paper, I’m typing it into the notes thing on my iPhone, and it’s just ridiculous – idle hands are the devil’s plaything, and I can’t be the devil’s plaything. I got to be the devil; I got to be the guy making it all happen.

– Corey Taylor, lead singer Stone Sour and Slipknot, interview (2012)

Movement remains purifying; badness is still its absence. Except nowadays, as the connection of most of the population to the cathartic, physical work—sweat, blood, tears—of history grows more and more tenuous, it is harder to claim goodness. As a compromise we resist evil. Instead of evolving the dualism, it seems that we are devolving out perception of ourselves.

More and more of us in the ever-economically-growing West are consumers par excellence, ‘digital citizens’, and disaffected—in my experience–with the paper-pushing desk-jockeying that we sense is futile in the scheme of things. The Maker movement, the ‘hipster’ fixation with all things artisanal, the tech start-up: these are reactions, attempts to get back to the good work. To what end? Never you mind. It is enough to escape the self-flagellation and mind-suspicion alluded to by Corey and Lisa.

Mindless evil

If one creates, one avoids for a time the evil within. One can only paper it over, because how can one exorcise one’s nature? Is it any wonder we are overworked in the era of untold plenty? Any wonder the West doubles over in moral self-reproach whilst not much is achieved?

Perched atop my paper throne, I sometimes look up from my work and watch the massive post-industrial machine turning around me. In those moments I realise that all the free trade deals and marketization of politics is just an indefinite extension of an ancient moral teaching.

Our revered economy, which must grow year-on-year in order to make us feel safe, regardless of how it grows or what this growth costs, is just labour, and labour is just morality. It has no end in itself but repressing imagined evil. If one does not believe human nature is intrinsically evil, then our labour, our progress, our economies—these are all to no end, and hence endless.

I see this, the foundations of my paper throne, and still I am powerless to step down from it because in this day and age, in the West, if you want a house you must work because our endless growth has inflated the price of shelter.

When my shelter is  finally paid I plan to, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow elegiacally wrote, ‘sit in reverie and watch the changing colour of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind.’ Because I don’t believe the mind is evil, or humans are bad. But, disbelieving both, I cannot escape their logic, as written in the workings of the world. This very piece stands as proof, as work I have imagined for myself to give myself something to create.

I fear my idle seashore will only serve to free up space for more imagined work—namely, writing—which in itself is endless, because it is not the publication but the work that feels good. At least it will be better than managing other people’s risk.

Maybe, when I am older, idleness will seem idyllic. I hope so. I would very much like to prove—in my own life—the truth of Bertrand Russell’s claim that ‘The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery’.

He could well be wrong. Perhaps we each will remain slaves to ourselves until the planet and our bodies can take no more. Hope is often nondescript and improbable. My hope for averting mindless evil lives in the flower lingered by, to the very conscious end of appreciation, on the road beside the train tracks that lead to work.

Life grows between the rails

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