Underlying Idle Theory is the incomprehension and disquiet that this writer felt, looking on this industrious world. Technology, as he saw it, was meant to free men from work. The whole point, he felt, of yoking an ox to a plough, was to get the ox to perform the work of turning earth which would otherwise have had to be carried out by men with spades and hoes. And those spades and hoes were themselves tools which enabled men to dig the soil more effectively and speedily than they ever could with bare hands. And if technology in the form of spades, hoes, and yoked oxen, and later powered tractors, served primarily to speed men's work, to free men from work, then would not the result be, as technology improved, that men would live increasingly more idle and leisured lives, free to do as they wished? And yet this has not happened. Men work just as hard as they ever did. In Western societies, instead of technology bringing leisure, it appears instead to have increased the pace of life, so that it has become ever more frenetic, hurried, leisureless. Why has this happened? Why is that humanity working so hard, when they ought to be hardly working at all?
This question is not addressed by political leaders, or economists, or philosophers1 , or religious leaders, or even by their political and economic opponents. For them, the whole point of spades and hoes and oxen and tractors was not to reduce the labour of men, but to increase production. If a spade enabled a man to dig a field in half the time it took for him to dig it with bare hands, they had it that a man could dig two fields in the same time, and produce twice the crop. And with yoked oxen he could plough ten fields. And with a tractor he could plough a hundred. And the 99 other men freed from the land could then be set to work to make other goods, of great diversity and in great numbers. Thus men would be supplied not only with food, shelter, but any number of amusements, toys, games, diversions. They would have a wealth, not of leisure time, but of possessions, which is - it was held - what people really wanted. The political goal of contemporary society is full employment in wealth creation. And the harder everyone works, the richer they get. The only serious argument is concerned with the distribution of this pile of goods, with some (the Left) arguing that the social produce should be divided equally, and others (the Right) arguing that with an ever-growing pile of goods even the poorest in an unequal society would be far richer than they would otherwise be.
These two views of the nature and purpose of economic systems are radically different. In the first view, humanity is understood as having to work, and technology in the form of spades, ox-drawn ploughs, tractors and combine harvesters, acts to reduce their work. In the second view, the economy is not driven by necessity, but by a desire not just for food and shelter, but for all the good things in life. In the first view, it is the physical need for food and shelter to sustain their life which obliges men to work. In the second view, it is their psychological disposition, their desire for possessions and pleasures, which powers the economy.
Economic philosophy, in recent centuries, has been written by men who saw the economy in this second way. This view also underpins the principal ethical theory of the age, Utilitarianism, which had men seeking pleasure and avoiding pain - both of which are psychological states. It followed from this psychological account of human life, that if one wanted to understand human nature, one had to understand the workings of the human mind. This belief is so deep that many scientists believe that, if science is ever to explain human life, it will do so by explaining the inner workings of the human brain. This belief also underpins a whole raft of modern political movements which hold that if enough people change themselves, adjust their mentality, the world would be a better place - that all that is required for change is for enough people to want change. The conviction that psychological adjustment is the key to a better world drives the use of psychotropic drugs, and of a whole range of psychotherapies ranging from Freudian psychoanalysis to meditation and yoga. Change the man, and you change society.
Modern economic philosophy is not science. It does not grow from a physical understanding of human life, but from a subjective psychological account. We simply don't have an economic science which is an extension of physical science - real science2.
Idle Theory, instead of starting out with a psychological account of human life, begins instead with a physical account of life. It begins with a life which must perform physical work to maintain itself. The role of mind is one of directing that work. Psychological feelings of hunger, or thirst, or cold, arise in response to real physiological conditions - low blood sugar levels, dehydration, heat loss. And because they arise in response to physical states, these psychological events are secondary. They serve simply to prompt an individual to eat, to drink, to find shelter.
This sort of approach to life is relatively new. It is found in ecological studies of the energy flows in biotic systems. It sees life in terms of energy. The idea of energy only emerged in physics in the mid-19th century. It only began to be applied to living organisms in the mid-20th century. Idle Theory is a variant of this approach. The distnctive feature of idle theory is its description of life as alternating between being idle and being busy working to maintain itself.3
Although Idle Theory started out as an economic idea, it rapidly became an ethical and political and legal, and even religious idea. The goal of human society was freedom from necessary work, and human society, its moralities, laws, political organizations, religions, and economy, all worked, more or less effectively, towards that end. And since living creatures in general, as opposed to humans in particular, fell under the same imperative of acting to increase idleness, the whole of the natural world of plants and animals came to fall within the province of Idle Theory. The survival of the fittest became the survival of the idlest.
Idle Theory is a way of seeing. In Idle Theory, all life is seen as attempting primarily to stay alive with minimal effort. The first photosynthetic plants discovered how to capture the abundant radiant energy of the sun. The first herbivores discovered an easier life tapping the energy stored in plants. The first predators discovered an idler existence by capturing the energy stored in herbivores. Multicellular life was more idle than unicellular life. Human life is simply another variant form of life, that acts to minimize effort. Human society, the division of labour, tools, ethical codes, laws, and trading systems have all acted to increase human idleness. The subjection of humans by other humans in slavery was, for millenia, the only way in which some people (the slaveowners) could lead an idle life at the expense of others.
Author: Chris Davis
Last Edited: 16 Nov 1998