Consume less, work less

Originally published in Idler 49.

To escape work, we must escape consumerism. They are two sides of the same coin. “Consume less, toil less,” is the mantra of the successful escapee. Idlers will see the logic immediately: if we cease in our lust for daft commercial products, we’ll no longer need work to pay for them.

A full-time, high-stress job isn’t required to meet basic consumer needs. If all we wanted was food, rent and heating we’d not have to work very much, perhaps getting along on two or three days per week.

In 1930, Bohemian economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that a 15-hour week would be in place by 2030. “How silly!” today’s pundits say. But Keynes was “wrong” only in that he hadn’t foreseen the insatiability we’d develop. If we lived more like our grandparents did, without smartphones and coffee pod machines and other debt-generating gewgaws, the 15-hour week might be here by now. We could finally get back to the inexpensive things we really want to do, like reading, strolling, creating, dancing, making love and playing tiddlywinks.

We should stop chuckling smugly about Keynes being wrong and start living more modestly and in line with his prophecy. The essay in which he made this prediction was called Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren. Let’s adopt Keynes as our honorary grandad, and consume less to work less.

“Consume less” need not be a tyrannical rule. If you want to, say, smoke, because smoking gives you pleasure, then you should go ahead and smoke. But know of the toil required to pay for the activity. At least then it’ll be a deliberate decision–a wholehearted commitment to pleasure–instead of an unthinking act of inertia. There are many well-known and celebrated ways to consume less.

Thrift. Where consumerism encourages buying solutions to solve problems, thrift suggests we be resourceful and imaginative. We can “make do and mend,” build, brew, cook, stitch or improvise our own things. Instead of condemning a half-finished item to landfill, let us apply a little patchwork and make a threadbare product into a trusted friend. Instead of trying to keep up with fashion, let’s learn to be stylish and timeless.

Minimalism. Where thrift is a matter of “waste not, want not,” minimalism goes further and says “want not, want not”. Learn to love empty space, quietness and a lack of clutter, and we’ll find ourselves wanting very little. It’s not a matter of resisting temptation to the siren song of consumerism as cultivating a haughty disdain for it.

Epicureanism. If we can find a fondness, philosopher Epicurus said, for something so simple as water or a sunset or the observation of garden insects, we’ll no longer be seduced by the promise of bigger, faster, louder, more violent offered by consumerism. Instead of shopping for leisure, we can look the other way and find myriad delights.

Appreciation. Psychologist Daniel Haybron says there are consumers in the world and appreciators. Consumers are the type to turn up at a lakeside retreat, blast around ostentatiously in a speedboat and spend the rest of the weekend complaining that there’s nothing to do. This mindset is encouraged by consumerism, making us constantly hungry for what comes next. Appreciation meanwhile is the skill to know when your surroundings are interesting and plenty.

Bohemia. Perhaps the ultimate in turning one’s back on consumerism, the Bohemians (such as Keynes’ own Bloomsbury Group) developed a distaste for the obvious and the mainstream and found pleasure in arts, crafts, parties and love. A Bohemian would rather live a threadbare existence doing what she loves than submit to financially-rewarding but soul-destroying toil: an outlook meaning, of course, turning one’s back on consumerism and finding rewards elsewhere.

When you start to see work and consumption as two side of the same coin, you begin to see what a scam the consumer society actually is. Here’s a terrible secret to help bring this home. To economists, work and consumption are the same thing. A country’s GDP can be calculated by adding up total production or total consumption. Both totals are the same. This is because one person’s work is another’s consumption and vice-versa. This will be mind-blowing information if you’re among the millions who work full-time in a hated job while trying to reclaim dignity on the weekend by going shopping.

If you’re amused by this because you’re part of the punk counterculture and not a shopaholic, you might want to keep in mind that the same law of economics means you can’t smash capitalism simply by not shopping. You must also reduce the amount of work you do, work and consumption being the same process, looked at from different directions. The idler-escapee is uniquely qualified to strike a direct blow to capitalism.

If we want to escape the daily grind and punch capitalism in the face as a pleasing consequence, let us go back to basics. Let’s make our outgoings wholly predictable and quit the full-time job once and for all.

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