Saturday, October 19, 2013

Redefining Laziness

So after posting my last slapdash blog on the "conservatives hate the poor" stereotypes, a conversation the next day came up which was predominantly focused around that exact subject. Now, that blog was far from my best, but after arguing with a couple people for a while, I realized that there was definitely something important missing. I said, and I maintain, that people are generally lazy; the point of the blog was not that conservatives don't think people are lazy, but was rather that conservatives don't hold a particular stereotype about the poor being particularly lazy. Everyone is lazy in some way. The conservative, in my experience, generally thinks that the difference between the poor and the not-so-poor boils down to something different, a gut tolerance for shitty work.

But if this isn't a basic case of fundamental, innate differences between people, then what is it?

Well, after thinking about this for a couple of hours yet again, I realized that it was in my understanding of what constitutes laziness. It wasn't that I hadn't thought it through, so much as I thought it through long ago and have been writing on the assumption that laziness was well understood and readers would just know what I was saying.

But laziness is not well understood. It's actually kind of difficult to define if you go by the normal vision of a lazy person as simply someone who is inactive and prefers to stay that way. Suddenly, I had a crystalline moment where old thoughts came back and I remembered how I had thought out this concept years ago, then integrated my conclusions into my worldview, how those conclusions evolved, and eventually forgot how I had come to conclusions that made so much of a difference. But I shouldn't have done that. There's a key to my conservatism - and my Nietzschean worldview - locked in my definition of laziness, and I'm going to spell it out. If this makes enough sense that you think I've stated the obvious and you've heard it before, then I've succeeded, because I don't think it gets laid out much, if at all.

What is Laziness?

Think about it: what is laziness?

Is it a resistance to doing work? Yes. But what kind of work? ANY kind?! I think not.

A resistance to just physical work? Please. Laziness has nothing to do with physical activity. That's especially true today, when fitness buffs can obviously be slackers (Jersey Shore?) and the fat guy in the office could be the hardest worker there. The connection between laziness and physical activity is a historical artifact, coming from centuries of being expected to work in the physical sense, as farmers, miners, craft artisans. Any time you're burning calories at a higher rate than motionless idle, you're doing some kind of work, but there are plenty of lazy people who move their bodies around, so it's not the same. Nothing physical describes the economic difference between work and leisure.

A resistance to learning? To actively acquiring skills? Please. The laziest people I know are getting incredibly skilled at Grand Theft Auto 5 right now, which makes sense, given all the "work" they put in to it. 

Is it a resistance to doing pointless work? Hell no: a resistance to doing pointless work is the basis upon which economic efficiency is founded. Besides, there are Luddites out there who disdain technology because it strips them of jobs that the technology makes pointless. Many people think they need pointless work to give them value, and while we can call them lazy by some standard, they aren't lazy in the sense that they won't do it. The question is whether pointless work is actually work, as opposed to waste. 

And pointless work is waste, intuitively. So what makes work work? This "work" concept needs a better definition for laziness to have a better definition. 

Well, let's start here: Playing GTA5 isn't work because it doesn't accomplish anything that others require of us. So, for it to be considered work, must it be what others want us to do? YES. That's the definition of work: what other people want us to do.

Right here, it should be obvious that this is about power and control. Laziness is a denigrating term used to straighten up people who are not going along with society's economic expectations. Like all other moral terms, the concept is cultural, normative, and meant to affect our behavior. It's meant to get us to work, and work is social.

There are two components to this normative definition of work:

  1. Work means investment. The action of work is the action of doing something for the sake of future benefit. All work, when you think about it, is investment. When you grow crops, you grow them with the expectation that later on, you will use them for some functional application like eating them, or sell them, either of which works in your benefit AFTER the work is done. By definition, working means doing something you'd rather not do right now for the sake of assuring yourself the ability to do something you want to do in the future. So again, work means investment. 
  2. Given that humans are social creatures, work implies a social meaning. A group is not simply a band of individuals, but a gathering with loyalties, internal dynamics, a hierarchy of some kind, and a basic understanding that every part has some value. Specialization requires that every member do something, make exchanges, work as a group, and work is therefore an extremely social activity for any human being. What's important about this is that work be what other people value, not that you value, and there are very few exceptions to this. This makes work somewhat coercive: you would not be doing it unless other people made you do it, and in a market system, that sense of force comes from the activities of other people that have value for us, the things we want from others and that we coerce them to do with our economic power, our money, that we acquire.
That's work. These things run on a continuum, of course; some investment-based economic activity runs on a shorter time frame. The most obvious example is a guy with a temp job that's "work today, get paid today", which is fairly immediate in reward and requires no long-term commitment, versus a dedicated company man who starts out in a mail room earning peanuts despite their college degree. Also, while some economic activity is very personal - growing a vegetable garden, for example, does not require other people to help, or to buy your stuff - it's all got some interpersonal punch.

Individuals generally want, on a selfish level, to do what they want instead of what others want, and to make minimal commitments. Society wants people to commit, taking the long view, and to do what others want the most i.e. what is in highest demand, market-wise. Everything from pay to bond market interest rates reflects this. People will push you, even if you think your welfare is not their business, because it really is.

No society is totally individualistic, so the talk about individual responsibility has its limits. Even when one member says, "I'm not doing anything and I accept the consequences", other members of the group know what this means: later, when starving, this asshole will require other people to support him. The group will have to support him, or they will feel terrible and question whether they could trust their neighbors if they went through a rough time; rarely do humans let other humans in their group just die. So even taking care of yourself by growing your own food is social work, as it assures others that they won't have to carry your dumb ass.

Proactive Humanity

So according to the above perspective, laziness is not about physical activity at all, but about doing what you want to do, versus what others want you to do. That assumes a difference between the two, a big difference between what you feel like doing and what society needs to get done.

I resisted this conclusion in my younger years. The thing is, ever since I first took an interest in anything economic, I never assumed that people were "naturally" lazy. People could be quite motivated to do things, feeling compelled to do things, when they really cared about something, and this much was obvious. We have energy, and no one wants to just do nothing. So I thought, if people cared about each other, they should be willing to do at least some work other needed of them, so that could handle the minimum drudgery that technology hadn't figured out how to solve. However, most "work" could be based on what people wanted to do.

This occurred to me when I was about 16, and I went from there to believing that it was society referring to an activity as "work", with all the arduous connotations that word has, which made the big difference in people's views towards what could be a creative activity without the sense of burden attached. We didn't need the coercion of money, or so I thought. About this time, I sent off for literature from the CPUSA.

At the time, I took seriously the idea that people were inherently good, selfless, really wanting to work but having been misled by a system dominated by assholes.

This was the result of a certain perspective I had about pleasure. There are people who really, literally enjoy doing what they do, as in, they'd do it even if you didn't pay them. I thought this was evolution making the act of helping others pleasurable, entirely aside from the self-interested benefits it conferred. I thought that if the contribution of doing work was communicated better, people would simply want to do it.

But there's a difference between helping people selflessly and helping people because it's empowering, and it became much more clear over the years that work is enjoyable because it is empowering. Everywhere you look, the examples of people enjoying their work are actually examples of a certain type of socialization. Artists are a good example: on a higher level, what are they actually doing? They're expressing themselves. The pleasure they take from it derives from their ability to garner praise or make a heavy social impact or simply be taken seriously, a reflection of their power. The artists who create selflessly are the ones you don't know about, because they do their work on their own time and then put it away without showing anyone, expecting nothing. Work is always about acquiring value from people. Value is subjective, uncertain, and we yearn for the assurance of public appreciation in our work. The football player who scores a touchdown feels real joy and personal triumph when it happens, but that comes from social circumstances. It's a game played by people for interpersonal glory, a competitive context. They feel good because they've raised their value in the eyes of others, and they will be able to leverage it for their own benefit in the bigger scheme of things.

Such people are being empowered by their investment, and the reaction from the crowd lets them know they've invested wisely.

The obviousness of this empowerment is less direct with people who, say, work on an assembly line, sometimes so indirect that they feel their job is meaningless. But that's not true; it's meaning is just less obvious and visible, as the assembly line worker is not there at the point of sale to see the person who really likes what they helped to create. Even more abstract is the case of someone like the guy who makes gasoline or some other commodity and nears nothing but bitching about the price and how they're getting bent over. Their satisfaction can only be found imagining how much people's lives would suck if they woke up tomorrow in a gasoline-free world.

There's a bias in favor of apparent joy: important work is seen as work that gets a happy reaction. But that's a terrible, terrible indicator of what work is actually important.

And that's just as true if you don't like it, either. Do we really want to do what others want us to do? Usually not, as people are self-interested. Nor do we care as much as we think about the lives of those who create for us. Do we really sweat much thinking about the working conditions at Foxconn when we buy our iPhones? Nah, we don't really care about the suicide nets. Welcome to Human Conflict 101, the origin story, the prequel, Part One, the Oldest Testament. Those people who get lucky and really want to do their job? They probably like their life more than you, but even then, they won't want to do it every day, with pressure applied to do it a certain way, at a certain rate, day in and day out. Even people doing their dream job have their bad days. Every artist eventually sells out to survive, as only the most vapid can actually think and feel on the terms of popular culture.

16-year-old me just didn't get how deep these things went, how lucky the people who enjoy their jobs are, how wrong I could be about the nature of people, and how poorly the supply that people preferred to give each other lined up with their demands of each other. Incentives, coercive incentives, are necessary. The people who provide what others want must be rewarded. They can not and will not be rewarded equally, and if it were required, then the system would collapse. Those who provide more must have more power, the link between investment and authority legitimized. The investor who's concerned with the long-term welfare of the business will take the short-term hit of being an asshole for a little while in exchange for the long-term benefit up tightening up discipline from the people he depends on. Those who can make trade-offs like this proficiently can build empires, and those who have are responsible for humanity's power.

As arrangements are made, some people will push the envelope and say no to the expectations, which could lead to reduced welfare for the rest. Most people do not abstractly blame themselves as a society for this, so they blame the power class. And so, the power class punishes people who are slacking. They are responsible for discipline. They used to just beat people's ass. Now, in the context of our free and individualistic society, the threat of getting fired acts to motivate people, the capitalists holding power and being appropriately hated for it. If you get fired, you might be able to coast on help from other people for a while, but if the support happens on personal terms, normal humans get tired of your lazy ass and tell you to get a damn job. This is how it has to be, and this is the ecosystem that gets destroyed by large-scale, impersonal charity.

These dynamics are both self-interested, and group-ish, as society is a condition of the individual's natural environment, a positive condition where the individual can acquire rest and pleasure by running on earned credit for a while. Every time we take a pleasant breather in this world, we have the activities of others - people who constrain violence, people who make things, people who entertain - to thank. Society is a system of investment, and everyone has to pay in.

Let this roll around in your head for a bit: the definition of a society is a group of people that invests in one another. Whoever doesn't do it takes themselves out of society, alienates themselves.


From what I can tell, there are two psychologies to the lazy bastard that are based on their attitude towards the expectations of the system. The first is the undisciplined slacker.

This is the person who knows what's expected of them and at least passively accepts the arrangement, but who delays or evades it when it's time to get things done. 

I know how that goes, because I am one lazy fucking fucker.
This bastard is a neat freak next to me.
I'm a born procrastinator. I put shit off, even though I know that shit needs to be done. (I'm doing it right now!) I prefer to chill out, listen to music, read, dabble in whatever, and just kind of check stuff out, especially cute girls on the interwebs. And, of course, I like to sleep in, and I mean really sleep in. Noon is too early to be up and doing things. These are my natural preferences, and they happen to coincide with the typical stereotype of a lazy person. I assume they are somewhat innate, as most of them have never been encouraged by anyone except implicitly, by example, my dad in his later years. I hated his loafishness as a kid and he still pushed me to do things, so I don't think I picked it up from him as a matter of conditioning, but rather as a matter of genetics. I've always had to fight it. The Army helped a bit.

It has its good points. I spend little time feeling overloaded, as I tend to get shit done at the last minute, so 6 days out of 7, I feel unstressed. My immune system is oxen-strong, as years ago, I tended to wash my dishes only about once a month, and my body had to deal with the unsanitary results (I've since reformed this... somewhat). Guys like me will keep being slackers, making short-term excuses and saying "I'll get to it tomorrow, don't worry" unless some problem - sickness, boredom, authority - forces us to take action and think beyond the next hour.

These people are not a threat to the order unless they are allowed to continue being slackers while everyone has to keep working. But if they manage to make work habitual, they will sometimes take their hatred of unnecessary labor into a talent for efficiency that spurs innovation and good order.

The other type is the rebellious slacker.

The rebellious slacker rejects the arrangement on the assumption that he's getting screwed. It's not that he doesn't want to work; it's that he doesn't want to work under this set of expectations, under the thumb of these assholes, with all this pressure being applied. The arrangement becomes unjust as he realizes how his feelings are less important than his performance.

Is he getting screwed? That's purely a subjective opinion, and it's inevitably a selfish one. We've been arguing about the arrangement for centuries, and equality - in metaphysical theory, in legal theory, or even in practice - has become default justice in the West because everyone wants more and nothing else can be innately justified to people. Equality is the Mexican standoff among all groups in of Western civilization: whoever flinches gets shot full of blame and moral guilt.

But for every rebel who is truly pissed off about the unfairness of the arrangement and would work hard for a better one, there are thirty rebels who simply don't want to be told what to do. They reject the authority of society over them. These people very rarely call it misanthropy, a rejection of the people, as that's a terribly unpopular thing to say. But rebels also very rarely have any real philosophical ground to stand on in rejecting the authority that runs society and enforces its value system, except the fact that everyone knows what it's like to hate being told what to do, and they empathize. So the rebel turns the idea of "the people" into whatever they want it to be, and will fight like mad to legitimize their point of view while destroying the legitimacy of the prevailing power class.

This is not undisciplined slacker-ishness. These people are dedicated to the ideal of a slacker's world, and fight for it, empowering themselves by controlling the context of their society, the intoxicating experience that becomes everything they want to do. By undisciplined slacker principles, they often screw themselves by doing more work than they would have by running with the status quo. But they aren't undisciplined slackers. They're egoists. It's not a lack of energy or a lack of investment-mindedness that makes them what they are. It's an absolute refusal to do what other people want them to do. It's pure anti-social alienation.

One time in a thousand, these people take action and change things in a way that can be argued as an improvement. The rest of the time, they are simply selfish. We have seen the enemy, and it is the rebellious slacker. The undisciplined slacker shares a desire for control, a desire for the power to watch TV or sleep in without negative consequence. The rebellious slacker offers some of this power, by creating better excuses, by argumentative innovation, with disordering consequences. They are natural allies, but the undisciplined is a foot soldier. He takes his cues from the rebel.

This is what we have to watch out for. The fundamental concept of freedom is that others can't tell you what to do. How far do you think that can go?

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