Work and Play

We are most fully ourselves when we are playing. Play is what we do for its own sake, purely because we enjoy it, as opposed to doing things that have to be done in order to survive. Play is what we choose to do when left to our own devices, an expression of who we really are, as opposed to what we and others are forced to do as a matter of necessity or social convention. If a person struggles to play then they don’t really understand themselves, they haven’t learned to express their individuality, and their life has probably been dominated by conformity and obedience.

I’m using the word ‘play’ in a very broad sense to include arts and sciences as well as crafts, games and pastimes. Any activity that is done simply for the pleasure of doing it counts as play in this sense. An activity may have practical benefits as well as being pleasurable, such as the technological benefits of scientific enquiry, or the health benefits of playing sport. But it counts as play as long as it’s done primarily for the pleasure of it, as opposed to the practical benefits.

I’m not referring here to the simple pleasure of, say, a pleasant meal or a sunny day. I include, in my definition of play, the pleasure of setting ourselves challenges and overcoming the difficulties we face. But such challenges and difficulties are very much ones that we create or find for ourselves, they are not simply imposed upon us either by nature or society, and they are sought out for the ultimate pleasure of overcoming them, as an expression of who we are and what we are capable of, not as a demonstration of self-sacrifice.

Given this view of human nature it’s depressing to live in a society that worships at the Altar of Hard Work, a society where everyone loves to talk about how hard they work, and to judge others according to whether they work hard or not, as if human life has no other meaning or purpose. This hard work is, of course, work we are told to do by our so-called ‘superiors’, not work that we choose to do.

We live in a deeply hierarchical and authoritarian society. People who step out of line face ostracism and punishment, whether social, legal or economic. The Cult of Hard Work is a method of control used by the capitalist rulers to keep the workers in line. If the bosses can convince the workers that hard work makes them better people then the bosses will probably see their profits rise. They’ll also have fewer complaints about pay and working conditions. This is why hard work is lauded as morally supreme under capitalism.

The hallmark of hard work, as a moral concept, is that it involves sacrificing our individuality and subordinating ourselves to the social hierarchy. A society based on this concept of hard work can produce a great variety of alluring and largely unnecessary material goods and services, but it can produce very little freedom or happiness.

I have no objection to necessary work or competent work or efficient work. Obviously there are practical things that need doing and we should try to see that they’re done adequately. But to value work simply because it’s hard is perverse, a form of masochism or self-hatred. Suffering doesn’t make us good people, contrary to the twisted values of the Cult of Hard Work, it makes us slaves. What makes us good people is the ability to feel and express love, compassion and solidarity.

According to bourgeois morality a worker’s life is vindicated if they suffer for their society, which actually means suffering for the capitalists. The workers are encouraged to diminish their own individual humanity in order to obey and conform. The key institutions of capitalism – the family, schools, workplaces, armies and prisons – all place great value in obedience and conformity. The prison is the ideal to which all forms of capitalist organisation tend, a situation where conformity is at its most intense and freedom is almost non-existent.

We are sick animals. But we could be so much more.


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