A Hurried Weetabix and a Mandatory Descent into Commuter Train Hell
The following is an excerpt from The Good Life for Wage Slaves by Robert Wringham, published by P+H Books in 2020.
Things hadn’t gone according to plan.
It had been seven years since my Great Escape and I’d managed to avoid having a proper job ever since. What’s more, I hadn’t imagined that I’d ever have a proper job again, save perhaps something honorary or in a sort of “consulting detective” capacity like Sherlock Holmes in which people come to me and ask that I mull over their “little problem.” But that’s imagination for you.
I’d been tremendously cocky. Not only had I managed to escape the safe and respectable lower middle-class destiny that had been so gently laid out for me, I’d also made some rather disrespectful gestures while moonwalking out of the building. I’d ditched my job and abandoned my planned career after, well, let’s say “finding it wanting,” and then looked directly into the camera to tell the people at home how I’d never, ever, be coming back. The words “smell you later,” may or may not have been uttered but there’s really no point dwelling on details after all this time, is there?
To help fill the time between “death” and “now”—a period of time I have always assumed to be considerable and have yet to be persuaded otherwise—I would set up as a writer. It was a compromise and a climb down from my childhood ambition of being a balls-out song-and-dance man, but it felt accessible to me as a creative art and one that wouldn’t involve any expensive new shoes. I also liked the idea of keeping things small, of hanging out the proverbial shingle, and living off the fat of my own brain with nobody to tell me what to do. So this is what I did. It was so lovely a life that I’d recommend it to anyone of a similar nature. It was my idea of the good life and I actually had it.
My days involved joyful writing, peaceful flâneur-like walks around the neighbourhood, occasional travel, plenty of beer, and the much-loved natural light from the windows of our Montreal apartment. The nights were spent with my love monkey (“wife” seems so undignified), either at home or at friendly parties. Through frugality, creativity and careful planning, I’d destroyed my addiction to the monthly paycheque. It was lovely, lovely, lovely.
But suddenly I was back in an office. It had cubicles and everything, just like in The Matrix. I was listening to shrill, ringing telephones, the back-and-forth zub-zub of photocopiers, and the chap-chap-chap of Prince Chunk, a co-worker (who, on balance, I liked but bloody hell) eating his Tesco cheese and onion sandwiches with his goddamn fucking mouth open again.
No, things hadn’t gone according to plan.
What is the good life? I will tell you. After scratching my head over contradictory philosophy and social psychology books, after reading the diaries of the terminally ill (see Escape Everything! for that sad story), and after paying attention while living in the alternate modes of Wage Slave and Free Radical, I can reveal that these are the keys (if not the very substance) of the good life: health, friendship, love, lots of free time, purposeful or purposeless intellectual fulfillment, sensual pleasure, an appreciation of our existing surroundings (as opposed to working hard to achieve a better situation), a satisfying creative output in which we can take personal pride, a clean and dignified place to live.
That’s it. I thought I’d better get it out of the way towards the front of the book. If I’d put it at the end as if it were a conclusion, you’d have been furious and thrown the book across the room. I didn’t want to make you work so hard for an in-plain-sight Holy Grail succinct enough that it could be printed in a reasonably large typeface on the back of a pornographic playing card.
It shouldn’t be too hard to achieve those things, should it? Out of the nine points, at least six of them are achieved by many zoo animals. You can do it too! Fling that poop!
“The good life” is a concept from ancient philosophy. It’s about how to live well when given the gift of life. The Good Life also happens to be the name of a 1970s television sitcom, the opening titles of which show an adorable little cartoon bird skirting around the edge of a flower, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.
In the ancient world it came to prominence with Aristotle who called it “eudaemonia” and continued with Seneca and Epicurus, both of whom, despite fundamental differences over how to achieve this state, advocated a life free from suffering and rich in simple pleasure. The case for the good life has been reopened at various points in later Western history, notably with the Bloomsbury Group in the 1930s and various intentional living projects of the 1960s and ’70s.
The concept is old but it’s also topical. It is still with us, perhaps more prominently than ever now that people have more potential (if not always actual) wiggle room when it comes to time and how to spend it. The COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 led to many people re-evaluating their life priorities but even in normal times, most of us think about the good life every day; first thing in the morning and last thing at night. It concerns our status as people, our identity, our ideas of success, and what constitutes time well-spent or time wasted. It is present in magazines and weekend supplements about “work-life balance” and “self care;” in workplace negotiations around annual leave, parental leave, or the length of the working week; and among academics and activists planning for a future increasingly likely to be characterised by machine automation.
The defining requirements of the good life, we can see, are exceptionally obvious and yet oddly elusive. They are obvious in that we know them from Hollywood romcoms and Disney movies, but elusive in that we consistently fail to observe them. Sometimes this is because of truly mitigating circumstances, but often it’s because they’re so obvious that we end up ignoring them. It’s too easy to say “yes, of course friendship is an important thing, it goes without saying but…” and to put it on the back burner while zooming around, doing less-important but seemingly urgent things. “There’s some devil in us that drives us to and fro on everlasting idiocies,” wrote Orwell, “There’s time for everything except the things worth doing.”
The good life is a positive vision of the sort of life we could lead as high-functioning primates with countless options and a civilisation to have fun with. It’s about getting a meaningful and worthwhile experience from our time on Earth, or of making the most meaningful and worthwhile contribution. Some go-getters work to propel themselves towards this vision, dedicating significant time and resources to the task. Others wistfully pine for it. Many believe the good life to be too far away to be worth the effort of striving for it, while others believe it to be largely a state of mind and available immediately through positive thinking.
The good life is subjective in that everyone has their own vision of what it might consist of. Some people are humble while others are ambitious; some solitary, others social. “It would be a boring world,” my mum once said, possibly in an act of diplomacy intended to stop my sister and I from murdering each other, “if we were all the same.” But strangely, most people’s visions with regards to the good life are remarkably similar once we blow away the specifics. A person-specific statement like “I want to live in the countryside with Steve and raise three beautiful children together and to never again wear a formal shirt” or “I want to live on a boat with Irma and a cat called Mr. Pickles with lots of scatter cushions around” can be simmered down to “I want to spend the bulk of my time in a place that suits my taste, with the close company of people I love and with minimal discomfort.”
Something I like about the phrase “the good life” is that good is so pleasingly unambitious. Not great or best but good. Not all, but enough. Good is so mild and decent and ungreedy. It runs counter to the “winner takes it all,” “getting ahead” mentality. I daresay that the practices of the Type A personality—all the dashing around and post-it notes and high-fives—are necessary if you want to live the so-called best life and to squeeze out every last drop of potential like a miser dehydrating a penny of potential value but we don’t have to aim so joylessly high. The good life is enough, and far less manic and obsessive. Aim not low, but lower than high, is part of my message. We can’t all take over the world.
Competition, striving with others to be the absolute best, is a waste and likely impossible anyway. There’s limited space at the top. But who needs the top? What’s the point in expending so much energy fighting and struggling to reach the so-called top, when happiness and comfort are so easily achieved when we think in terms of the good life. We should look for a happy niche somewhere in the middle instead of elbowing everyone out of our way in a harebrained stampede to the top. Besides, the consequence of reaching the top is that nobody likes you anymore. Best is, when all is said and done, a bit silly. Good we can manage.
Friendship. Sensual pleasure. Intellectual fulfillment. Time. It can all be gained relatively directly without the need for a wide run-around, accumulating money and possessions as if life were some sort of zany board game and realising too late that none of this was important at all.
Until recently, my instinct has been to say that a Wage Slave cannot have the good life almost by definition. This is because the sheer amount of time, energy and willpower sacrificed to a full-time job is an obstruction to the nine tenets set out above.
Wage Slavery–an urgent need to pay the rent with only one’s labour (or increasingly, time) to exchange for the necessary dosh–eclipses the good life and what would ideally be a support system to the good life becomes the main project and the main stuff of life. The good life, no matter what your design for it, is unlikely to involve being woken at an unholy hour by a loudly-beeping electronic device followed shortly by a hurried Weetabix and a mandatory descent into commuter train Hell.
I now believe it to be possible for a Wage Slave to experience the good life, though it is uncommon to witness. The reason it is uncommon is because we don’t generally know–and are not encouraged to know–how it is done. As a correspondent to the letters page of a magazine recently put it: “If all you know is work during the day and the couch in the evening, it’s hard to engage in the good life once you get the chance.” So true.
I now believe it is possible after all because I was forced to find out how to do it. I refused to let a two-and-a-half-year sentence to mandatory Wage Slavery (we’ll come to the specifics of the mandatory nature of this “sentence” in a moment) take away the calm state of mind I had enjoyed while travelling and writing and while living in Montreal. Not permanently anyway.
The standard attempts to bring the good life into the workplace fail because (a) we have a poor understanding of the good life thanks to our thorough hoodwinking by consumer culture; and (b) the prevailing culture in the West is a slavish devotion to work and a prejudice against simple, apparently-unproductive pleasure. Most attempts to bring the good life into work are doomed to failure. And yet, I believe, there is hope. As we know, there are people who are no longer (or never were) Wage Slaves but still fail to live the good life. And there are people who live the good life but also have jobs. Both groups are minorities but where we cannot join them directly, perhaps we can learn from them. Let us educate ourselves about the good life, what it is and how to have it. Let us, when doomed to be Wage Slaves, work out how to bring the good life in.
This book is an investigation into the good life from the perspective of a sleepy vegetarian on an ergonomic swivel chair in a noisy office to the side of a congested sliproad in an overlooked city at a northernmost point of a winding-down capitalist Empire.
But first… this!