The Hagen Country Club
National Museum to celebrate a nation built on culture

Working and wasting our days


EVERY few years I dig out Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, In Praise of Idleness, and re-read it. This year a couple of newspaper articles caused me to go looking for it.

It is a great restorative for the kind of lifestyle I eventually adopted after a number of false starts.

Download Bertrand Russell - In Praise of Idleness

Russell was an English philosopher and the essay was published in 1935 but it still has an authentic ring to it. That it has prevailed all these years is testament to the power of the essay as social comment.

He was, I suppose, a leftie, whatever that means, so he enjoyed taking the piss out of the establishment.

In the essay he says, “I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous …”

The 19th-century English writer, Jerome K Jerome, author of Three men in a Boat, also famously observed, “I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

These are interesting observations, especially when our current crop of politicians and business leaders are saying things like, everyone is entitled to a job, and banging on about things like productivity and the dire need to increase it.

It is especially ironic when you consider that the relentless striving for productivity is slowly killing the planet on which we all live. It’s as if they think there are no alternatives.

I’m with Russell when he says that, “the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.”

Russell was not advocating stopping work altogether. He was just explaining that we do far too much of it and that it is innately unpleasant.

A bit far-fetched you might think.

Since the beginning of humanity and up until the Industrial Revolution, which was a very long time, people managed, through a minimal amount of labour, to provide for their subsistence.

In Papua New Guinea these pre-industrial people still exist in the rural areas. They work to put food in their mouths and to provide comfort and shelter for themselves and their families.

Those of us compelled to live in westernised societies, including the urban areas of Papua New Guinea, work for much more than that however.

We work to consume, to gain material wealth and in the mistaken belief that this will make us happy. In that regard we have become dupes.

Dupes of the politicians, dupes of big business and dupes of their henchmen in the churches. We have been brainwashed to work so that they can be comfortable and, worst of all, we work so that they don’t have to work.

Not having to work very hard, to have time to sit around and chew the fat with friends and relatives, to think deeply about life instead of accepting a version of it from someone else’s loaded platter and, in the interests of many of the readers of PNG Attitude, to do enjoyable things like writing short stories, essays, poems and novels, is one of the hidden and unacknowledged beauties of the so-called Melanesian Way.

In that regard I think Bertrand Russell would have liked Papua New Guinea.


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Arthur Williams

Rural idyll of PNG but for a life expectation of 57 years of toil.

Robin Lillicrapp

Job 5:7 But man is born unto trouble, as the sparks from the fire fly upward..

Michael Dom

Wow. I feel like such a slave.

But I take refuge in my poetry - the leisure of which keeps me up at odd hours.

As for my day-job as an Assistant Pig Keeper, well, I have drawn good inspiration from all that hard work and effort.

So, I think, maybe the social output (poetry) of doing that job has justified the individual (slavery) input.

Slavery for poetry. Sounds a likely maxim for me.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Funnily enough Bertrand Russell refers to workers as 'slaves' in his essay (and elsewhere) Sil.

In Australia there is a minor obsession with 'work-life balance'. It is, in effect, an attempt by the slaves to claw back some of their time for their own use.

As Chris intimates, it is only after you've been working for a very long time that you come to realise how futile much of it has been.

In my own case I got involved in Aboriginal heritage in 1974. In 1994 I called it quits. In that time I travelled in a great big circle and came back to where I'd begun. The only difference was that the arseholes I was fighting had turned from white to black. It was 20 years of my life pretty much wasted.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Phil, those below middle-level managers in multinational corporations all over the world are literally modern day slaves.

The best economic theories don't seem to work. The West has millions living in poverty in the midst of obsessed neo-liberal economic globalisation.

Among them are the modern day slaves working for the multinational corporations merely to put bread and butter on the table. It seems they have no freedom.

You are correct about PNG. Bertrand Russell's 'In praise of idleness' comes later, PNG lived and walked that talk long before Jesus walked the earth.

Now, modernity with open economies screws everybody and turns Melanesians into modern day slaves of these corporations. Freedom and communal living gone!

John Kaupa Kamasua

Phil a very a good topic relevant to PNG.

I think in this country, many people piggyback on the work and honest efforts of very few people.

Many people even in responsible positions have become liabilities.

I look forward to the day when the tax regime will be changed so that the average worker can take home a bit more than the current regime in which a big chunk is lost to income tax...quite excessive I would like think.

Garry Roche

Phil, perhaps this issue is even more pertinent now with the spread of email and laptops and i-pads. Work is following people home after official work-hours by way of emails. Many workers find themselves answering work related emails at all hours.

There has been a reaction against this in some countries. In Germany a boss cannot expect staff to respond to emails while on holiday, and there are moves there to ban emailing staff outside working hours.

For more on this see:

Chris Overland

Phil, you are so right. I squandered far too much of my life on work that I thought was meaningful and which turned out to be nothing of the sort.

And it is painfully apparent that the accumulation of "stuff" does not and cannot bring real happiness.

But this is contrary to the accepted wisdom, so it is denied in word and deed.

We all suffer for it in the end.

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