Leisure Time (non-cooperation re-defined)

“Surfers must somehow support themselves.” J. Rawls, Justice as Fairness; a Restarement, p. 179, Harvard University Press 2001.

This is a bit of a cheap shot. I firmly believe Rawls provides us with the most nearly right political thought available as of now. But his cursory treatment of leisure time shows just how deep the preconception in favour of ‘hard work’ runs. It is a preconception that borders on the dogmatic. People have many rights but never the right to do as they please. It is as expected to ‘earn’ the respect of society by showing ‘merit’ as it is expected to want to live.

What I will want to do here is start to correct that issue and clean up Rawls’ conception from the consequences of this misconception. We will wind up re-discovering the principle of non-cooperation as underlying a society that is based on the ‘ideal of non-cooperation’, once non-cooperation is in its turn suitably cleansed from both individualist egoism and/or collectivist activism.

The issue with Rawls’ treatment of leisure is a common one. It considers leisure time as a good that is to be distributed equally (or at least fairly). For Rawls, leisure is governed by the second principle and, as such, needs to be checked but only insofar as the difference between individuals is concerned. The result obviously is that also the surfers and others on the fringes of society should ‘somehow support themselves’. The system can’t allow for a higher than average type of leasure without at least a systemic quid pro quo.

The common sense exceptions in everyday reality are explained away by referring to ‘talent’, ‘natural endowment’ and such things as can disguise how minimum amounts of effort can still be accounted for in the over-all quid pro quo. It’s a reasoning based on a fuzzy notion of ‘leverage’ where some individuals possess so much of this leverage that they can get away with an increased amount of leisure without breaking the notion that most people have no right to being lazy.

Whilst this may seem a superficially sound reasoning, it is clear that it cannot fit into an account of fairness. This is as obvious as may be once you see the elitism that is a natural consequence of what is essentially a circular reasoning (which is why it is popular in artist circles, I guess). Because indeed, who will be the judge? Those that are in power are the judges and those that are in power will judge their own class favorably and they will frown on any weird subversive ideas coming from those that are not in some way ‘accepted’. This treatment of leisure therefore would not survive the Veil of Ignorance (if we allow this line of argumentation at least some strength): nobody can reasonably be expected to agree with an assessment of the elite as to this notion of ‘leverage’ for the simple reason that there is no objectivity to a judgment of a self-proclaimed elite, however much the components of this elite are convinced of them forming a most ‘natural’ elite.

Shorter myself: winners pick winners and therefore ‘winning’ can never be objective in, never establish fairness.

And that is the essence of it. All current political conceptions are biased in favour of ‘winners’ with respect to leisure & hence all current political conceptions – including that of Rawls – are biased towards merit, hard work and those things that commonly determine who ‘wins’. In other words: on top of a variety of talents there’s always an assumed common element of an individual’s moral worth: the amount of energy she (and therefore mainly: he) is willing to spend in stuff that has nothing to do with that talent but everything with convincing others of the importance of that talent.

The issue can only be solved when leisure is treated as a basic right, a human right governed by Rawls’ principle. There can then be no more discussion on the right to be lazy then there can be on the right to express one’s opinion. Also, the difference principle is to be checked for this, up to now, misunderstood right to be lazy. If anything it established some level of objective reason for non-egalitarianism: because violating everybody’s basic right to be lazy is certainly not at all better than only violating some people’s rights, to some extent.

The above is ideal theory. Surely one cannot proclaim this right as an absolute any more than one can proclaim any of the other human rights as an absolute that would, for instance, give just cause for violence, no matter what.

Practically, one has to find a way of establishing this right without destroying the societal order. In this way, this right is not different from all other rights most of the time. These were not established by violence but by the imperceptible movement of the consensus public opinion (of the overlapping consensus, if you will). So, how do we go about it? The answer lies – I think – in re-discovering the principle of non-cooperation. Non-cooperation is at its core aligned with an human right to leisure, at least when it is differentiated from misconceptions about non-cooperation.

Non-cooperation is not compatible with non-violent activism (if there is such a thing as non-violent activism). In itself the idea of activism is a negation of the principle of non-cooperation because the principle is at least made subordinate to a shared goal of the activists. There can be no positive shared goal for non-cooperation as non-cooperation is not a means to an end (not even a means to the end of non-cooperation) but a goal in itself.

At the same time non-cooperation is incommensurable with any idea of absolute freedom or radical individualism as it is the result of a political – and hence irreducibly social – conception of individual liberties. Non-cooperation can never be expressed by a positive refusal to comply with societal rules that are basically fait. It cannot even in itself support a refusal to comply with rules established by a society that is still basically unfair. Non-cooperation can be an element in the expression of discontent with certain rules but it can’t be a rallying cry in itself as it for instance is in the “all taxes are injust”- type of thinking.

Surely even in non-democracies, non-cooperation does not present a revolutionary tendency but the reverse. It is – in its essence – a refusal to be revolutionary and a commitment to take things without drama and impatience; without the stress and the implicit measuring of one’s worth by one’s contribution expressed in amount of energy spent doing what one fundamentally does not like to do.

Considering all of this, we don’t have a principle of non-cooperation anymore but we have an ideal of non-cooperation that rests in the individual accepting she or he is part of a society but refusing to be subsumed under whatever banners of shared goals and conceptions. Non-cooperation will have won when there are no implicit or explicit stimuli left that somehow force cooperation. I reiterate: it would be a mistake to interpret the ideal of non-cooperation as the need to consider non-cooperation as an absolute requirement. Non-cooperation is like free speech and the other liberal values an element to be maximized within an over-all political system respecting fairness; one should not just maximize it and in fact (just as with the other rights) when one atempts to maximize it one has made the first violation against it.

Finally, one should not worry that things will wind up in chaos or anarchy. The appetite for laziness is as diverse as that of having/expressing an opinion. In some people, like maybe surfers, it is rather absolute and they will need some form of basic income given that they have the right not to support themselves. In others there is almost no appetite for it and they would feel condemned to emptiness when forced to take more leisure time as they naturally feel they need. I am sure that these things will balance out, also because it clearly would be fair if the surfers did not wind up with the highest income and the workers with the worst. In fact, I need to underline that the populist cry that laziness is the real threat to the Western system is nothing else than the protection of the working elite as is evident by the fact that those advancing that populist idea are, generally, much more lazy than any of the people they claim are too lazy to get state support, e.g. via the idea of a basic income.

[Probably a bit confused but there is something here – it connects a couple of my thoughts that were not yet directly connected.]

[Whilst writing this I was listening to Suicidal Tendencies, “How will I laugh tomorrow?” and Anthrax, “White Noise”.]

One response to “Leisure Time (non-cooperation re-defined)

  1. Pingback: Sunday Stories: Gravity’s Rainbow (1) « The Weblog

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