Leisure Socialism

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In
this piece, I want to lay out some of the reasons that many Americans
took up socialist projects in the 60's, 70's, and 80's, and to suggest
that some of the motives involved are not themselves incompatible
with libertarian approaches. I am primarily interested in more-or-less
suburbanite attraction to socialist ideas, such as interest in having
the government provide an at least basic level of housing, education,
and health care to all citizens. Furthermore, I am not so much focused
on all conceivable grounds for this attraction, but rather am centrally
focused on the motives of promoting possibilities for what I will
term "leisure activities."

In
post-WWII America, the major basis for interest in furthering citizens'
possibilities for leisure stemmed from the view that we were living
in, or would soon be living in, what Galbraith termed a "society
of abundance." In short, the idea that many of us had was that
America was a land of great wealth, and that many people were working
much more than was strictly required for all to enjoy the needed
goods of life, such as housing, education, healthcare, transportation,
food, etc. It was not merely that people individually accumulated
"excess wealth" through over-work, but, more importantly,
that most of the work done contributed to the acquisition of additional
wealth by those who already had more than enough to secure the "basics"
of life. So not only was leisure being undervalued relative to labor
by many individuals, but there was a lack of potential leisure time
available to citizens, relative to the potential that would be on
offer if wealth were more equally distributed, or otherwise seized
to bring about greater equality among citizens' levels of wealth.

In
some ways, it was odd that interest in leisure should be at all
central to interest in socialist policies. One might think that
it would be times when there was not "enough to go around"
where one would be most interested in getting a larger share. And,
indeed, this is the case. But of course, socialism is not about
"one" getting a larger share, but about most people getting
a larger share. The leisure-socialist motive grows popular only
when individuals in society are producing a sufficient level of
goods at sufficiently low prices such that most citizens feel "safe"
from starvation, homelessness, and similar evils of poverty. Prior
to reaching this comfort zone, people are more likely to accept
inequalities that further wealth creation, placing their hopes not
in achieving goals pursued in leisure, but in greater opportunities
for future generation. However, as more individuals become more
comfortable with the level of wealth they have attained (as sufficient
to avoid starvation, homelessness, etc.), they also, all things
being equal, become more comfortable with the idea of reducing economic
inequalities, even if this will hamper wealth creation overall.
In other words, economic comfort makes a more evenly distributed,
but smaller pie a more acceptable idea (psychologically speaking).

In
the 60's and 70's, many American suburbanites had reached a level
of economic and social comfort that provided fertile soil for socialist
ideas. Undoubtedly, individual non-suburbanites would likewise approach
this comfort zone. More importantly, all kinds of people had all
kinds of different motives for considering socialism. But what I
am interested in here is the "leisure motive." And I am
interested in this motive among suburbanites in particular because
they would seem to be the least likely American "demographic"
to favor a socialist order in America, while, at the same, constituting
a sizeable chunk of the overall population. Finally, I focus on
suburbanites because they were the group most interested in the
leisure motive relative to other motives. Among urbanites the overlap
with suburbanite consciousness was present, but so were more straightforwardly
Marxist ideas, feelings of class resentment, and feelings of ethnic
resentment (for example, as stemmed from real or imagined "WASP"
wrongs).

What
were these socialist ideas that took root in minds of so many suburbanites?
In general, they were very gradualist in nature. Opportunities for
an immediate life of leisure were noted, and plans for further government
expenditure to relieve the need for "excessive" amounts
of work entered into day-to-day discourse. Initially, of course,
there was the hippie movement, which stressed simplicity of lifestyle,
and rejection of lifestyles required to fit into high-pay, high-work
positions, such as in standard law firms, banks, brokerages, and
other similar office positions. At the same time, new opportunities
to live off government financial assistance were pursued, such as
spending on student loans, healthcare, un-employment insurance,
food stamps, etc. Corresponding to this "direct action,"
was the adoption of political stances favoring increased government
assistance in these areas, along with a desire to have "the
well-off" foot the bill. The major focus, excluding the political
activities of the "committed," was to pursue of life of
music and drugs in a way that had not previously been possible on
large scale, due to the demands of work and the providers of work.

Branching
out from the hippie movement and parallel counter-cultural activities
favored by suburbanites (including those who had transplanted themselves
to the city or country), were a variety of other youth-based groups.
These were generally of highly diverse nature, and their nature
is not well documented. I will limit myself to describing what occurred
in California in the late 70's and in the 80's, as this I can address
from personal experience: there were punks, "mods" (moderns),
& neo-hippies of various flavors. More importantly, there were
the much larger group composed of those who had selected out central
lifestyle elements from these first three groups: we could simply
call this the initial post-punk movement or group.

All
of this youth activity was very exciting, at least for those involved.
There was the glimpses offered of a future where work did not have
to be the individual's focus, such that most of one's time could
be spent simply on socializing, making free art, free theoretical
works, practicing mysticism, etc.

Indeed,
this is quite a noble future, and there are not necessarily very
many Americans who reject such a future society in and of itself.
There are those of strongly Protestant bent who might have seen
something wrong with a future that does not make work central. But,
in the main, the objection has not been to this future itself, but
either to the proposed means of achieving it, such as massive expansion
of the size of government, or to the feasibility of achieving such
a future without seriously damaging society in other ways.

Why
were many Americans relatively un-daunted by these kinds of objections?
I would argue that no answer to this question is going to be credible
that does not focus on Americans' understanding of race. A dramatic
shift in this understanding occurred starting in the 1950's, and
reaching a high point in the late 80's. Growing up in this period
of 50's–80's, many elements of the earlier understanding would still
be enculturated. In considering these elements, one can of course
point to beliefs in the un-suitability of non-whites for carrying
out activities central to Western civilization, such as developing
and using high technology. Just as important, though, was the understanding
that whites would continue to constitute something close to a third
of the world's population, and would vastly out-number any racial
minorities in traditionally majority white nations.

Armed
with elements of these pre-50's beliefs about race, Westerners would
plan a future of leisure that was really a future of leisure for
the West. They would do this because they could imagine that
the non-Western world would return to some suitable, local form
of culture now that colonialism had been severely curbed. And they
would do so because they imagined that the future of the West would
be the significant factor in the overall future of the planet.

However,
as Westerners became more widely acquainted with the fact that the
globe was largely non-white and growing more so every minute, it
was no longer credible to claim that planning for the West was planning
for "the future." Moreover, as it became apparent that
many Asian nations were approaching or even occasionally exceeding
Western technological progress, this lack of credibility became
doubly apparent.

In
addition, the initial "comfort zone" began to fade, due
to the deleterious economic effects of the initial quasi-socialist
and socialist policies in Western nations, and the perceived "economic
threat" of Asia, as represented by Japan. More generally, changing
ideas about the relation of the West to the globe made Westerners
adverse to policies of wealth distribution that would hamper their
ability to engage in economic competition with Asian nations; or
that would limit Westerner's abilities to collect resources to deal
with perceived future threats from the overall global population.

Thus
lived ideologies favorable to certain leisure socialist ideas had
to be reconstructed to embrace a more global awareness. It was no
longer feasible to plan just for the West, and let the rest of the
world's population more-or-less develop autonomously. Instead, it
was necessary to plan for a future of basic goods for all. Given
the size and scope of global poverty, even the most optimistic advocate
of leisure secured through socialist means would have to admit that
a future of leisure was not on the horizon. Add to this a growing,
generalized disillusionment with the negative economic effects of
state intervention: living and planning for leisure took something
of a beating, to say the least. Instead, new plans emerged. From
the right, we received a plan involving free trade and America acting
as the world's "engine of growth." Many counter-culturally
inclined individuals entered into this plan through pursuit of computer
and/or entrepreneurial careers. From the left, we received a plan
focused on "sharing" the West's resources with the rest
of the world, as it continued to develop so as to embrace many Western
technological and economic elements. This plan was pursued by many
leisurely folk who entered into non-profit work, education, and
political lobbying. However, regardless of which of these two plans
individuals chose, it is clear that a lot of hard work is involved
all around, and not quite so much leisure as might have once been
hoped for.

Of
course, the leisure socialist can stick to her guns, and demand
government spending to allow leisure-centered lives nationally,
even if this has no effect internationally, or is even actively
harmful to the international effort to see that the basic needs
of individuals are met. This is what many European leftists propose.

However,
there are other options. If one is actually interested in allowing,
in the short term, more individuals belonging to small
subgroups of the overall global population to have leisure-centered
lives, and is willing to abandon the short-term goal of much greater
leisure time for all or most who want it, then there is little point
in looking to the state. "Leisure for all," might work
to whip up support for state intervention. But "leisure for
just some of our fellow citizens, and never mind about the rest
of the world" is not going to work. Only a relatively small
number of individuals will be willing to see significant portions
of their wealth used to support such a limited "leisure initiative,"
and, of these, most will not accept the forcible direction of their
wealth by the state even to projects toward which they are in principle
well-disposed. (For one, the state will never fund quite
the same projects as a private individual would.)

As
such, if one is interested in the goal of leisure for the many,
if not the all, then it would be best to promote libertarianism
and leisure-directed charity. Many choose to give to those unable
to secure adequate food, housing, or education. Nonetheless, some
of those of means might be capable of being convinced that it would
be good to give to those who perhaps do not have such inabilities,
but who would definitely prefer to spend a few years surfing and
hanging out with their friends, etc. I suppose it is a question
of artistic vision: does it somehow please one that society contains
many well-fed, well-housed adults who do very little but play, and
perhaps also (at their discretion) engage in un-proven artistic
or theoretical activity? I.e., would it please you to see society
have more of such individuals? Well, perhaps most of would not be
so pleased, or at least, it is not anything close to a high priority.
Nonetheless, perhaps other individuals would be so pleased, and
have the means to enact their particular vision.

Libertarianism
allows for local property arrangements that promote social homogeneity
and an ethos of hard work within the local area in question, as
Hoppe makes clear in his Democracy:
the God that Failed
. However, if capable individuals truly
have interests that conflict with homogeneity and hard work, these
interests will also be expressed in local areas as the state withers
away.

Certainly,
I did get the impression that Hoppe would be skeptical that such
charity-directed interest in leisure as I have sketched would actually
be particularly expressed, as the state withered away. I say this
because of Hoppe's suggestion that, from a theoretical perspective,
conservative attitudes and libertarianism go hand-in-hand. Skepticism
is, in any case, in order. But so too is the need to highlight the
many possible goals that capable individuals can achieve apart from
the state, if they so choose.

January
27, 2004

Marcus
Verhaegh [send him
mail
] is an instructor in philosophy at Kent State University.
Here is his philosophy website.


        
        

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