The Continuity of Inequity
In Idle Theory's ideal scheme of progress, strict equality is maintained, and the idleness of all men rises equally with technical and ethical and political innovation. In idle time, humanity acts as it pleases. If it pleases some to trade in luxuries and amusements of various kinds, there is no obstruction.
But in practice, historically, there appears never to have been equality. Instead human society was divided into a minority of rich (idle) kings, emperors, and aristocrats on the one hand, and a greater mass of toiling (busy) bondsmen, serfs, and slaves on the other.
The simplest explanation for this inequality is that the kings and their aristocratic companions emerged from nomadic hunting groups which used their military power to subject agricultural societies. Forcing successful farming communities to pay taxes or tributes made for an idler life than the earlier life of nomadic hunting - which may have been becoming increasingly difficult if hunting had decimated wildlife. Once the nomadic hunters had learned how to use their military force to subject agricultural societies, the subjection of such societies proceeded at pace.
The hunters-turned-overlords retained much of their previous culture. They continued to hunt. They continued to eat meat. They continued to feast. They rode horses. Their ethical codes and education continued to emphasize the courage, physical fitness, martial arts, and discipline, which had been essential to a life of hunting large animals.
An armed minority of aristocrats and their soldiers was able to maintain a far larger majority of disarmed farmers and manufacturers in subjection. These subjects were forced, on pain of death or punishment, to perform whatever work their masters demanded of them.
Within the aristocracy there was a command hierarchy which owed its origins to the requirements of nomadic hunting life. At the apex was the king - the hunt master -, and below him his lieutenants, and below them the mass of soldiery. The king and his immediate court were the most idle, and his lieutenants less idle, and the soldiers still less idle. But all were more idle than the farming communities which they held in subjection.
The subjection of farming societies probably brought an end to agricultural and technical innovation. For to the extent that any subject succeeded in increasing their idleness by some innovation, to that extent were new burdens of work laid upon them by their masters. There ceased to exist any motivation to innovate, and farming methods and farming technology stagnated.
In this stagnant circumstance, the only way that anyone could increase their idleness was at the expense of someone else. Aristocratic societies could only increase their wealth by imperialistic expansion. Aristocracy fought with aristocracy. The victors earned the tax and tributes of an expanded kingdom, which could support a larger aristocracy, and a larger army for further imperialistic adventures. For the subject farmers, it made little difference: one iron heel was exchanged for another.
What technological development there was consisted almost entirely in military innovation - new weapons, new fortifications -. Thus while farming technology remained static, military technology continually evolved.
Among the least idle of the aristocratic freemen, trade offered one way of increasing idleness. The enterprising trader would visit other kingdoms, and buy there cheap what was plentiful in that kingdom, and sell it dear in another where it was scarce. If salt - used as a food preservative - was cheap in one place, and dear in another, a trader in salt could make a considerable profit by transporting salt from one place to the other.
But this trade could only be conducted in the intervals of peace between the wars which regularly erupted. During wars, trade would be interrupted, and goods seized or stolen. Even in peacetime, traders might require expensive military escorts to hold bandits or pirates at bay while their goods were in transport, and this cost of protection imposed a tariff on trade.
But the effect of trade, to make available useful tools and materials in places where they had hitherto been largely absent, in itself served to increase the idleness of those kingdoms between whom the trade was conducted, and particularly those of the trading classes. The result was the emergence of a small and rich new class of traders.
Trade thus opened up another means, apart from military conquest, by which a society could increase its idleness. But the interests of the emerging class of traders was at odds with those of a militaristic aristocracy. The traders required peace to conduct their business, and the aristocracy required war to advance their interests. A training in mathematics, in accounting, in languages, in diplomacy, was more suitable for a trader than physical education or martial arts. The trading community - the bourgeoisie - became a separate culture within the lower ranks of aristocratic freemen.
The growth of trade, and the emergence of manufactures which produced higher value goods, at lower costs, further served to increase social idleness. But, as before, the growth of idleness was one in which the idle class expanded relative to the whole population. An expanding "middle class" appeared.
As trade began to overtake war as the principal means by which a people might enrich itself, the values of the trading classes began to take precedence over the aristocratic virtues.
The continuation of the development of new technologies and industries appears always to have resulted in the expansion of the class of idle persons and the reduction of the class of busy persons, rather than a uniform increase in idleness across the whole of society.
This suggests that the continuation of the process will result in a smaller and smaller proportion of society being required to work to provide the necessities of life for the rest.
And, in time, perhaps only one person, and he only working part-time, will provide everything necessary. But there is another characteristic of modern society which acts to ensure that all are kept working:
The Obligatory Production of Luxuries.
In Idle Theory, anything is a necessity that increases human idleness, and anything is a luxury which decreases idleness. The distinction between the two is absolute as the distinction between addition and subtraction, plus and minus.
The trend of industry, historically, has been that technology has acted not to reduce work equally across society, but rather has acted to reduce the numbers of people required to work full time in any industry. Thus, in the past, the greater bulk of a nation's population lived and worked on the land. But the effect of the introduction of farming machinery was not to reduce the work of this population, but allow it to be performed by far fewer numbers of people. Thus now only a few people are needed to work full-time to feed the remainder.
The remainder were not freed from work. Rather they lost the income that their work had provided them, which was now being performed by a few men with agricultural machinery. They had to earn their living in some other way. And increasingly, as the amount of necessary work dwindled, a living could only be had by making and selling luxuries. In a society where one man's work can produce the food and shelter for ten men, the other nine must sell luxuries and amusements of one kind or another to earn that food and shelter. They have to sing for their supper. Idleness-producing necessities are traded for idleness-consuming luxuries. Everyone works as hard as before, but increasingly they produce and sell luxuries instead of necessities.
Thus increased idleness is immediately converted into luxuries, not by any choice of those made idle, but out of the necessity to somehow purchase the necessities of life. In modern Western society, wealth almost always consists not in any abundance of idle time, but in an abundance of material comforts and pleasures.
This has led to a vast and forced expansion in the trade in luxuries of every kind. Each house is decorated with carpets, furniture, paintings, radios, TVs, stereos, computer games. The shops are filled, not with food but with cuisine, not with clothes but with couture, as well as books, music, holidays, cameras, oriental clothes and fruits, perfume.
In addition, rather more hidden, there is the sale of sex, of pornography, of drugs. And, driven by the requirement to sell luxuries of one sort or other, the constant tendency must be for these amusements to be ever more thrilling, exciting, addictive. The goal of every luxury manufacturer must be for a clientele who are as addicted to his products as they are to food, and preferably addicted to his products alone.
Modern society is thus increasingly characterised by the contradiction whereby it has become necessary to make the unnecessary. Luxuries have taken on the character of necessities.
From one point of view, this apparently seamless transition from an economics of necessity to an economics of luxury could be regarded as wonderfully successful, in that it gives everyone something to do, keeps everyone busy, while transforming their activities from work into play. It fills the world with art, literature, music, motion pictures, cuisine, couture, cosmetics, perfume, jewellery, games, in an ever-expanding range of delights and amusements.
But from another point of view, the same transition nullifies the promise of technology to free men from work. Technology has simply acted to shift toiling humanity from making and selling necessities to making and selling luxuries. The work never stops. The hands that once crafted useful knives and pots now shape hairstyles and write novels. Men who once worked to create idle time now work just as hard to kill those idle hours. Freedom to choose has been replaced by a range of consumption choices.
A case can made that all the evils of the modern world grow from the trade of luxuries for necessities. It is a trade that keeps humanity working as hard, if not harder, than their poverty-stricken ancestors.
It makes for a life of increasing uncertainty, because while whoever trades in necessities can be sure of a sale, the trader in music or hairstyles is forever the victim of ever-shifting fashions. (The Beatles bankrupted any number of crooners and hairdressers.) And where fickle fashion is at play, whoever deals in fashion items must be forever guessing which way its winds will blow next. And when food becomes cuisine, and clothing becomes couture, and shelter becomes penthouse, even necessities metamorphose into luxuries. The humble potato must dress itself up as french fries, or cheese and onion crisps, or something equally fanciful. Fashion effectively re-introduces famine and drought into human life, as goods go unsold.
And given that the idleness generated by any new technologies is immediately converted into work to produce more luxury consumer goods, human society ceases to hold out the any prospect of relief from toil. And with that the most profound and ancient despair of humanity - that they would never see relief from toil - gathers new strength. The promise of technology, and of reason, having failed, men revert to irrational cults (which are themselves expensive luxuries), and to the oblivion of alcohol and opium, the nirvanas of heroin and Ecstacy, turning inward away from a world which works not for their relief, but for their subjection.
And when honest labour begets only more labour, it is only through crime that any leisure is to be had. And so crime, ranging from theft to the most elaborate financial swindles, multiplies, and criminals are admired.
And in this way, everything that men put together over centuries, from morality to law, from political organization to industry, is eroded and damaged and nullified.
Author: Chris Davis
Last edited: 10 October 1998