It is an idler's axiom freedom is unlikely to be found through work, at least through work as it is generally organised. For most of us, work is in fact a prison. When I think back on all the many and varied jobs I’ve had over the years, the principal emotion I remember, even in the so-called good jobs like working at the Guardian, was a sense of powerlessness, often mixed with boredom and a simmering resentment. I felt stuck, paralysed. This is not to say that we didn’t sometimes enjoy ourselves. We did. But that was despite the confining atmosphere of the office and not because of it.
However, doing nothing is the most difficult thing in the world, as Oscar Wilde said, and that is partly because the pro-busy propaganda, put about by both corporation and government, is so relentless and powerful.
Take the latest horror in the ongoing effort to instill the work ethic, and that is Hotmail’s new ad campaign, which has the terriflying title of 'the new busy'. Now you can hardly fail to have noticed it. It is all over the world’s underground train systems, its airports and its billboards. The idea is to create a demographic group to which we would all like to aspire. The 'new busy', we are told, are not like the old busy. They are not stressed out and tired. Instead, thanks in part to Hotmail, they are able to achieve amazing things while remaining unflappably cool. That at least is the implication. The campaign is also given to baffling manifesto items about the habits of the new busy. We hear that they: 'Put their pants on both legs at a time' (presumably in order to save valuable time); 'Always keep a suitcase packed' and 'Like it when their emails get along'. Time is never wasted for the new busy. Even when they are asleep, these crazies are improving themselves: 'Would be open to taking a class in their sleep'.
The new busy are not above a bit of wacky fun, either. It’s not all work. Oh no. They 'make pancakes into exotic shapes'. Wooah! No one could accuse the new busy of taking life too seriously. Except that we can. What we are seeing here is the latest outburst of positive psychology conditioning. Positive psychology is the idea that forced cheerfulness can actually make you happy. Happiness is good because happy people make productive and uncomplaining workers. Positive psychology is about being cheerful, outgoing and cooperative in the office. It is not about negative acts such as joining a union or protesting about pay and conditions and exploitation. It is also about loading a gigantic burden onto the shoulders of the individual: be positive, be happy, be successful. Any failure is your fault. This leads to a tremendous sense of self-importance. And self-importance leads directly, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, to mental breakdown. Hence the gigantic sales of anti-depressants in America.
Old dog; new tricks
Positive psychology itself is merely the latest version of Calvinism and the Protestant work ethic, which has been making us miserable since 1535. In the 19th century, Methodist ministers in the churches instructed their working class flock in the ways of punctuality, hard work and servitude. In this way, an obedient working class was hewn from the rough materials of the liberty-loving, bloody-minded British peasantry.
Today the equivalents of the Methodist ministers are to be found in the brainstorming rooms of advertising agencies. Instead of preaching from the pulpit, the ethical messages are preached from a thousand billboards, TV ads, web banners and all the rest of it. Instead of working hard because it is God’s will, today we work hard because we think it is 'cool'. Repetition is the technique, and servitude the result. The result of positive psychology, Calvinism, or any sort of 'happiness' project, is to make the people enslave themselves voluntarily, and also to think that this slavery is somehow cool into the bargain. The new busy are the new servile. This is not the boot in the face of Orwell’s 1984. This is the Soma-filled happiness of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The new oppressor does not charge in with all guns blazing like Mrs Thatcher. Your new oppressor comes bearing smiles, empathetic noises and happy pills.
The cult of positive psychology is wittily and thoroughly dismantled by the great American journalist, Barbara Ehrenreich in her new book, Smile or Die, who stands up for moaning and I would tend to agree. Let us resist the new busy and embrace the old lazy. In any case, as I have argued in previous pieces, 'busy-ness' is what exhausts our resources. The idle consume little. The new busy will drain the life of the planet, and we must therefore resist this sinister new trend with all our might.
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