On Leisure & Liberty (Part II)
Our Stolen Birthright
Latin - licēre (“Be free/permitted”) => Old French - loisir (“To enjoy oneself”) => Modern English - leisure (“free time”).
In the previous entry concerning leisure and liberty, y’all saw what Bertrand Russell thought about it, leisure specifically. How he conceived of it as a public good, particularly in the production of knowledge and culture, arts and science. And how he contends industrial Modernity, at the time of his writing (the 1930s), to be the total anathema to leisure for most people; having more and more people work long rigid hours, and have vapid consumptive leisure activities dominate modern life.
The blood bond between liberty, a cornerstone of Modernity and democracy, and leisure was illustrated. How historical forces unleashed them upon people as a whole, from the claws of gatekeepers, and how both concepts headed towards a decided split between them by the dawn of the 20th century.
You can read Part I here:
The Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and subsequently Modernity radically changed the way art, science, culture and technology were engaged with. The spirit of deliberation, reasoning and “progress” contagion; each domain viewed from a utilitarian p.o.v. - how they could benefit society or the nation-state. Knowledge and cultural production got more organized, more professionalized.
Anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics, botany, zoology, chemistry, political science and archaeology. Just some of the few disciplines formally established in the modern university system during the late 19th century.
People had more liberty to enter these various new exciting trades of knowledge production; serfdom, bonded labour and feudalism as established previously had been vanquished. The modern nation-state gave itself the leisure to partake in such endeavours; free from the priestocracy that jealously guarded such activities hitherto. Instead of the aristocratic noble, the theologian priest, or the artist under patronage undertaking knowledge and cultural production, the new free market of ideas and exchange, the modern university system, the publishing industry, the fine arts industry, etc. systematically gave a larger section of society to enter such bourgeoisie trades.
Seneca’s vision of leisure as a time spent productively bettering society found a convoluted manifestation. Quite indirectly so. Instead of each individual having free time and resources to explore high ideas and ideals, one had society use the new capitalist and rationalist logic of division of labour to professionalize such activities. Be it in science, literature, arts or technology. Hence, one could argue, at the structural level, collectively there was some sort of leisure. Ofc, market-driven cutthroat competition, and the act of earning a living don’t feel very leisurely to the individual.
Thorstein Veblen was one of the first casualties of the Marginalist Revolution. His style was being eschewed by others in the newly formed, modern professional academic discipline of “economics”.
Older thinkers used to make a pig’s breakfast out of their research, working across fields; more interdisciplinarity. The OGs, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx et al worked on the “political economy”; the economy being studied alongside politics, society, culture and history. It was close cousins to the field of political philosophy, the stomping grounds of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire et al; both sharing their genealogy in the older field of moral philosophy.
Just like how political-philosophical ideas like the social contract inspired real-life change (like the French Revolution), political economy was no toothless tradition. David Ricardo was a British MP and a free-trade champion. Adam Smith’s works were referenced by other politicians at the time. Marx impregnated future generations with a language and logic to fight inequality.
However, rigid boundaries were being drawn in academia. A neurosis of wanting to be more “scientific”, more mathematical, axiomatic, abstract and predictive transformed the major part of the political economy tradition into “pure” economics. Alfred Marshall’s The Principles of Economics was one of the landmark works that put the (free) market as the abattoir of economic activity in 1890. Along with the general neuroses amongst practitioners to be a “true science”, an empirical and rationalist discipline, modern-day “mainstream” economics was born.
Getting more divorced from sociopolitical, cultural and historical considerations.
At the 19th century’s curtain call, Thorstein Veblen published his work The Theory of the Leisure Class; as much a work of sociology as it was economics. He observed distinct patterns of behaviour in the increasingly industrialized and capitalistic society as it concerned leisure. A rise of conspicuous consumption across industrialized societies like the US. For rich and poor. Leisure was now definitely not the ambitious noble venture that Seneca or Bertrand Russell envisaged. Instead, it was what Russell would lament as passive consumption-driven activities; rest n’ recreation.
Leisure increasingly became defined as recreative activities, luxury goods, and status symbols. Especially material consumption, flaunted by the rich, the nouveau riche, and the emerging middle classes. Emulated by the less affluent in whatever way possible, in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of spiral.
Veblen is seen as a pioneer in institutional economics, focusing on how social institutions of laws, social customs, conventions and norms influence economic activity. You can see its relationship to classical political economy. But all these traditions were going to start playing second fiddle to the “pure” economics birthed from the Marginalist Revolution. A “mathematical-empirical social science” that was to be as scientific, objective and rational as they could get.
In the most “rational” and “detached” manner possible.
Free of politics, history and sociology. The logic of a free market and free trade would guarantee utopia. Capitalism was here to stay.
Veblen and Political Economy’s marginalization, the ascendancy of “pure” economics in the context of the ever-increasing professionalization of academia, and the rise of increasing stratification and organization of academia mirrored this particular trend in knowledge production. It made knowledge production more focused and efficient but at the loss of a certain holistic perspective.
All trees no forest.
By the 20th century, economists accrued a unique position in policymaking. They were economic advisors for policymakers, prime ministers and presidents. They were the chiefs of the central banks making the monetary policies of countries. They had powers that anthropologists, historians, political scientists, or even doctors or medical researchers didn’t have.
John Maynard Keynes didn’t live to see the glorious new heights his ideas would reach after World War II. He wanted to “save capitalism” after the Great Depression hit the world. He kinda did. The post-war Keynesian consensus is also remembered by some as the Golden Age of Capitalism. Industrial Capitalism. The 1950s to the 1970s. Unprecedented economic expansion, for America and her allies, more so than anybody. Britain, France, West Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Sweden and Greece among others.
Bolstered by Keynes’ theoretical justification, government intervention in the economy, and public expenditure on social welfare policies like education, healthcare, and infrastructure development found “economic” justification. Socialist policies found a place even in capitalist economies like the US, UK, etc. This was, then, a period of rising wages, a growing middle class, rising levels of higher education, and other such flowery stuff. It was also a period where membership in trade unions, student unions and other such organizations peaked across said economies.
In the afterglow of defeating true evil in the totalitarian death cults of fascism and nazism, it appeared liberty and justice were dawning everywhere. India gained independence, decolonization would hit Africa. Atrocities still plagued the world. The Vietnam wars and countless coups instigated by the US, Afghanistan, Indo-Pak conflicts, Soviet self-brutality and the works. But as paradigms of public policy and grand narratives went the world, especially the electorally democratic and socialist nations seemed to be fumbling towards the right side of history.
Once again, to stress the point, individuals in themselves may or may not have had the leisure to enjoy all the liberties that the modern nation-state proclaimed for their citizens. But public expenditure, enterprise and policy tried to provide a bare minimum. Economics, seen as the neutral rational social science compared to the messy humanistic affairs of political science or history, allowed for socialism to have an anchor in the largely capitalistic trajectory of much of the world thanks to the Keynesian consensus.
Britain (the 1970s):
The number of people from working-class backgrounds entering so-called artistic and creative professions would peak in the UK by the early 1970s, as a study would find later in the 21st century
One of the most advanced economies and oldest democracies, having won the game of imperialism and conquest at the highest level. They must have been close to utopia perhaps. They had a strong socialist tradition despite being thought of as a “nation of shopkeepers”.
But it is now suffering through rising unemployment, economic stagnation and inflation. It is suffering from labour strikes and political discontent. As is the rest of the world. The decade will end with PM Margaret Thatcher axing everything social welfare, and taking on a rabid neoliberal free-market political stance.
A similar trajectory starts on the other side of the Atlantic. By the 21st century, virtually all other countries will follow.
Technological progress remained sacrosanct. With the caveat of wherever money and incentives allowed it to go. For example, automobiles, but only fossil fuel based for the longest time. More efficient ways of drilling fossil fuels. Computers and electronics, and all the good stuff like that.
But now having split the atom and ventured into space, there were murmurs of having entered, perhaps, a new epoch. The Anthropocene.
One of the most consequential things to come out courtesy of the military-industrial complex and the American Department of Defence, all the way back in 1969; an information-sharing network called ARPANET. The mother of the modern internet. An innovation that would revolutionize the concept of freedom, liberty and leisure when it came to what people would be able to do with it.
On par with the Printing Press.
By 1993, Charles Magee had seen enough to pen the essay - The Age of Imagination: Coming Soon to a Civilization Near You. He thought the information age was coming to a close already. He thought imagination would be the new driver of economic value. Rita J. King echoed a similar sentiment fourteen years later. She saw a global digital cultural machine being fast assembled, one that would allow people to partake in it independent of their location. She was very enthusiastic about our prospects in the Age of Imagination.
I hate that I have LinkedIn. Lebron doesn’t have it. SRK doesn’t. Neither does Charli XCX. Nor does Elon Musk.
But I guess I need it. It’s useful for normies. It is good for networking, posting your work, looking for jobs. But we all know the performative clusterfuck circle-jerk hellscape it’s become. Or so goes the stereotype. Self-appreciation posts quickly turn into a lecture about believing in yourself, kissing corporate ass, being a team player, etc. Spam from random people telling me to get a certificate course, to “upgrade my skill”, “become more hirable”; spam from LinkedIn itself.
I hate it.
Emily Hund published The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity in Social Media in 2020; charting the formation of the newest industry to be birthed by the technological march of progress. A digital industry with its roots in the desperation of the Great Recession of 2008’s aftermath. Neoliberalism’s money supply manipulation and gaslighting of economic justice and fairness were exposed.
The aftermath: declining job security for millions around the world, companies were laying-off workers en mass. People were marrying later, they were buying homes later, all having real economic causes behind them. Real wage growth (that is wage growth adjusted to inflation) had been stagnant since the 1980s, there was a growing feeling that only the rich stacking the racks, while the rest languished. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century (2013) demonstrated it beyond a doubt; the return of socialist sentiments, anti-rich/eat-the-rich sentiments, Occupy Wall St. and the backlash against billionaires all had to do with the fact that systematically Neoliberal Capitalism enriched those at the very top at the expense of the others.
Or in Piketty’s more technical framing: the return on capital outpaces economic growth.
The phenomenon that Emily Hund explores in The Influencer Industry… is in the context of this regressed state of the (global) political economy. What appeared to be channels and platforms for people to socialize online with their friends and family all slowly and then suddenly turned into a digital landscape where attention and clout started selling for currency. And monetization followed. Big businesses and advertisers always knew the value of user attention and data.
The internet jukebox thus leads to a universe of new-age celebrities, subcultures, discourses and communities. The commodification of personal pictures and videos. Personal blogs. Amateur musicians and bedroom pop stars. Online streamers; literally watching other people play video games has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Ofc, there are feet pics, OnlyFans, pornography, and all that. But then we also managed to monetize the very basic act of having a conversation in the modern-day podcast.
You can also lip-synch your way to your 15 minutes of fame. Sorry, 15 seconds.
Just as the Printing Press allowed for the liberation of knowledge production from the greedy grasps of the clerical castes of Europe back in the 15th century. The internet re-invented the wheel, allowing an unprecedented volume of people a chance to partake in knowledge and cultural production.
The galaxies traversed in the last five hundred years. The technology of mass communication especially allowed more and more people to voice themselves. The freedom of self-expression, and through it that of knowledge and cultural production, cleaved violently from Kings, feudal lords and priests, and then institutionalized and expanded through democracy, the modern nation-state, and continued technological advancement.
The video essay, as it dominates video-sharing platforms like YouTube, Rumble, etc., is perhaps exemplary in embodying just how far knowledge/cultural production, the propagation and proliferation of discourse. More so than the blog, more so than Medium, Substack or any of these writing platforms. You don’t need years behind books, or conducting post-doctoral research. You just need an opinion and the internet.
Alice Cappelle runs a sociological video essay channel on YouTube. She approaches the topics with a critical left-wing perspective. Although she’s part of mainstream professional academia, it’s her YT channel that probably allows her to disseminate and bring academic and critical ideas more effectively to a larger audience than being at uni will allow her ever. She does a decent job at it.
But Alice fights a darker conspiracy-driven unintellectual movement on the other side. From the obnoxious pastor of hustle culture in Gary Vee to the now facing charges of human trafficking, professional misogynist Andrew Tate. This free postmodern landscape of cultural production has far outstripped the modern university system and the traditional print and publishing media, the two sources that democratized access to knowledge and culture. Throw in the traditional audiovisual industries like radio, film and television too. The internet has the lowest bar of entry. And that allows everybody to enter it.
A darker pervasive anti-scientific, anti-ethics, antiquarian gender and cultural norms find ground and currency. For even in this highly connected, technologically advanced world full of opportunities, the major part of the seedy digital underbelly is in collective strife and frustration. Thus, a reservoir of hate-speech, holocaust denialism, anti-vaccine discourse, a whole backlash pushing back against LGBTQ+ gains, and feminist gains.
Rita J King was right. A global digital culture-making machine has been assembled. Technology as usual has delivered us from constraints. Given us liberty. In many countries, being a YouTuber, and influencer is now the desired career choice for children.
Have you heard AI Drake singing Ice Spice’s Munch (Feelin’ U)? It’s funny. As one publication said, hearing his likeness say “Ass so fat it don’t fit in no jeans…” - it’s funny. It’s subversive and humorous.
The recent explosion of artificial intelligence has captured the attention of popular discourse. ChatGPT, Dall-E, and now AI music. It raised questions about authenticity and ethics. And anxieties about the future of work for many people; will everyone lose their jobs to automation, and other such neuroses.
This has always been the case of technological advancement; it allows people who have the leisure and the luxury to learn, adapt and apply. A scramble to fill in the limited slots before the market gets saturated. Y’know the ads all over telling you to take a course in AI prompt engineering. It’s the next gold rush.
Bertrand Russell’s essay, In Praise of Idleness, places the blame squarely on some intangible human folly, some temperament that doesn’t allow us to make the best decision on how to organize society. He doesn’t explicitly say so, but his holier-than-thou attitude implies such. There is no political will to change things, to redistribute resources with such utopic radicalism.
From the Printing Press to AI we have continued to liberate ourselves from prior constraints as a species, and that should have led to more leisure for more people. Instead, it led to a division of labour and marketization. Something that corrupts, and lowers the median result of all those labours. The market as an instrument of human endeavour got sanctified as a sacred absolute in the discipline of economics when the monetarists and neoliberals deposed the Keynesian consensus - the last remaining link to the socio-political to the historical and the anthropological.
IDK what else to say. But the way I see it…
Leisure and liberty have the same etymological origin. They are the same coin. Leisure is the practice of liberty.