An Anti-Work Manifesto For Our Times

Thoreau’s Walden and the movement to stop working so much and start living more.

It has become a cliché to say that the pandemic has changed the way we work. From remote work to the “great resignation” to new labor organizing drives at Amazon and Starbucks, it is clear that many workers are no longer satisfied with the traditional, hierarchical organization of the workplace. As these trends suggest, they are seeking alternative models of work predicated on a greater degree of democracy and autonomy.

Perhaps the ultimate rejection of work in recent times is the urge to do less of it altogether, which is manifest in the movement for a four-day work week. As numerous articles over the past year show, experiments in shortening the working week are already underway, from trade union-driven pilot programs in Iceland to voluntarily undertaken reductions at individual companies in the U.S.

While the impetus for these experiments appears recent, particularly in the U.S., the aim of shortening the work week is an old one—the desire for shorter hours galvanized the early labor and socialist movements in the nineteenth century, while twentieth-century economists like John Maynard Keynes foresaw a future in which the standard work week would dwindle to a mere fifteen hours. It wasn’t just union activists, utopian thinkers, and visionary economists who dreamt of a shorter working week, however. According to historian Benjamin Hunnicutt, one of the original avatars of the “forgotten American dream” of free time was Henry David Thoreau, the transcendentalist philosopher and author of Walden

At first glance, Thoreau may seem an odd advocate for a cause connected with the early labor and socialist movements. Thoreau was an individualist, and his experiment in independent living seems redolent of the rugged individualism often associated with a peculiarly American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. As a close reading of Walden shows, however, Thoreau was far more radical than such an association would suggest. The type of independence that Thoreau pursued—one which was predicated on freedom from work and the boss—has deep resonances with today’s demands for greater leisure and a shorter working week.

Thoreau’s anti-work politics (to translate them into current parlance) are visible even before he decided to “take up my abode in the woods” near Walden Pond, which, he informs us in the second chapter of Walden, was “by accident, Independence Day” 1845. (We may note the date’s significance as a comment upon the meaning of independence, that paramount American ideal, even if Thoreau insists that it was a mere coincidence.)

As a young man, Thoreau used the occasion of his 1837 college commencement to remark that the spirit of the age was too focused on work and commerce. It would be better, he suggests, if “the order of things [was] somewhat reversed, —the seventh should be man’s day of toil… and the other six his sabbath of the affections and the soul, in which to range this wide-spread garden, and drink in the soft influences and sublime revelations of nature.”

Walden is replete with further examples of this anti-work attitude, which recur throughout the book’s first chapter, “Economy.” At the center of Thoreau’s argument is his equation of value with life: “[T]he cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Hence the question that Thoreau says had long “vexed” him was “how to get my living honestly, with freedom left over for my proper pursuits.” This is the basis for his rejection of modes of living which require an excessive amount of work and money. What is the purpose, he wonders, of “spending… the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it”? “[T]he laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day… [h]e has no time to be anything but a machine,” he laments.

Thoreau expresses his rejection of work and his preference for leisure even more pointedly elsewhere. In an exquisite passage from the chapter entitled “The Ponds,” for example, he describes spending mornings on Walden Pond lying in a boat, letting the wind guide him. “Many a forenoon have I stolen away, preferring to spend thus the most valued part of the day,” he proclaims. “[F]or I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly; nor do I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop or the teacher’s desk.” I suspect it would pain him to know that most of us today waste our days and hours just so.

One might object, of course, that Thoreau’s proposal to live our lives more simply would entail sacrificing the comforts and conveniences afforded by modern technology. It is true that his tolerance for rough and simple living may be higher than most of ours, but he was also more sophisticated in his thinking regarding modern forms of production than he is often portrayed. As he remarks in the opening chapter of Walden, he has no quarrel with civilization, which he agrees offers advantages. The trouble is that we do not “improve” those advantages, a complaint that is echoed in his observations about the factory system of his day:

I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched.

Here, especially, Thoreau’s thinking resonates with our contemporary predicament: The enormous productive capacity at society’s disposal is not used to reduce working time but to expand output and enrich private owners. We would be following in Thoreau’s footsteps if we took back some of that working time for ourselves.

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BEN SCHACHT is a writer and editor based in Chicago. You can read more about him here.


BEN SCHACHT is a writer and editor based in Chicago. You can read more about him here.

1 thought on “An Anti-Work Manifesto For Our Times”

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