Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Idle Theory

Someone pointed me to this earlier. It's so fascinating, I'm reproducing it here.

We have, over the past 400 years, developed an extraordinarily powerful body of scientific knowledge - but without any corresponding development in political, economic, and ethical understanding. The result has been that almost all our most intractable problems are political, economic, and ethical in nature. The success of modern science has prompted any number of attempts to extend the methods of science to these problems. Most of these attempts have failed.

Idle Theory takes a new look at this old problem. Using a simple physical model of life, it first explores biology, and evolution, and then extends into human economics, ethics, and politics. In Idle Theory, all forms of life are regarded as alternating between periods when they actively work to maintain themselves, and periods when they are idle or inactive. The most idle forms of life, that do the least work, are those most likely to survive crises during which more work needs to be done. Human life is another form of idle life. The history of human society, human technology, trade and law, is one long attempt to increase human idleness. Humans are free to act as they like to the extent they are idle: they are part-time free agents. All human culture - art, music, poetry, literature - is the product of idle time.

In Idle Theory, human life is regarded as simply another variety of natural life. Individual humans coalesce into human societies, in ways precisely analogous to the coalescing of individual cells into multicellular life. And the evolution of human society mirrors the evolution of preceding natural life. The basic problem for human life is the same as it is for all other life: how to survive.

In the scheme of evolution just outlined, life is easy and idle for long periods, and interspersed episodes of difficulty. It seems plausible to suppose that for long periods early human life was easy and idle, but interspersed with episodes when life became hard, and human idleness was driven downwards, forcing idleness-increasing innovation. Necessity (Latin, ne-cessare to not be idle) was the mother of invention. But human evolution did not entail modifications of human physiology so much as the development of social organisations, techniques, tools, and weapons. The history of human evolution is the history of the evolution of technology.

  1. There seems to be no reason to suppose that humans always lived in social groups. Rather, human society was itself an invention, a mutual assurance society that offered its members increased likelihood of finding food or capturing animals, as well as increased protection against predators, and assistance when injured or sick.

  2. The principal human innovation was the development of tools - such as knives, bags, ropes, clothes, fire. A knife enables plants or animals to be cut up more rapidly than they could be torn apart with bare hands. A bag enables a man to carry more than he can with his hands alone. Clothes reduce body heat loss, and hence reduce food requirements. Fire heated up the local environment, reducing body heat loss. Fire could also be used to render food hot, quicker to eat and easier to digest. Each of these tools brings increased idleness, and hence increased likelihood of survival.

    The production of a tool entails a time cost, which appears as a period of decreased idleness. Once made, and put to use, the time value of a tool is the increased idleness over its lifetime. If value exceeds cost, it is a useful tool. If cost exceeds value, it is a luxury.

  3. The development of agriculture also increased idleness. Instead of being gathered from the wild, plants were grown in one place, protected from other grazing animals. This increased the yield, and reduced the harvest time. And when herds of animals could be penned in one area, they were easier to capture.

  4. Humans also set other animals to work for them. They used oxen to draw wagons and ploughs, horses to ride, dogs to hunt. Getting these various animals to work for them resulted in increased idleness for the humans, but decreased idleness for the oxen, horses and dogs.

  5. In organised human society, rather than each individual making every tool, each instead became a specialist in one trade. One made knives. A second made bags. A third made clothes. The specialist toolmaker could make a better tool in a shorter time and with fewer resources than a non-specialist. So a society made up of specialist craftsmen was more idle than one where everyone made everything.

  6. Also, within organized human society, there grew up a set of customs, or ethical codes of conduct, later formalised as laws. The effect of these laws was to make for smooth, harmonious operation of society with the minimum of dispute and contention, and thus to increase the idleness of society. Thus, for example, a convention as to who had right of way in a narrow passage would prevent time-wasting deadlock.

The idleness of a dependent system is the idleness of its least idle member, much as the strength of a chain is that of its weakest link. Thus as human society developed, it became important to ensure that idle time was equally distributed among its members. If it was not, and some were overworked, shortages of tools would appear, and these shortages would result in decreased social idleness, threatening the entire society. Egalitarian societies would survive crises which inegalitarian societies could not.

The primary human need is for idle time. This time need not be spent in complete inactivity. It can be used for games, pastimes, and the production of amusing luxuries. The time that can be devoted to these secondary wants is restricted by available idle time. If there is no idle time, there can be no games or luxuries. Thus there are two kinds of goods: primary tools which create idle time, and secondary luxuries which use up idle time.

The value of a tool such as a knife is the idle time it provides, which is an objective, measurable quantity. The value of a luxury, or toy, or game, is subjective and changeable. What one person likes, another may not. What one person enjoys one day, he may not the next. Needs can be distributed equally. Wants, of their nature, cannot.

The primary purpose of human society, and all its innovations and inventions, is to increase human idleness. This idleness is the fund of time that enables all art, music, literature, games, friendships, love affairs - everything that humans enjoy.

4. Human predators: conquest and empire

The success of human society in increasing its idleness resulted in a growing population, and the spread of farming settlements. But, assuming that the first settlements occupied the best land, new settlements would be forced onto poorer land, and a less idle existence. At the margin, life would be very hard, and such societies would urgently seek an easier existence. And just as increasing numbers of grazers prompted the appearance of predators, so wealthy human societies began to attract human predators, from the margins of civilisation, who robbed them or enslaved them or taxed them.

A tribe of nomadic hunters, in lean times, could turn their skill with spear and bow against rich but defenceless farming communities. It was either a hard life hunting animals, or an easy life robbing rich human settlements with their abundant stores of food. Once successful in this, the switch from hunting animals to pillaging farms became permanent. The idleness of the nomadic hunters increased. The idleness of farming communities fell, as losses to the new predators were made good, and defences constructed, militias trained.

Thus opened an era, in which the principal way for a society to increase idleness was through the subjection of other societies. Egalitarian human societies gave way to inegalitarian societies whose predatory rulers enjoyed a largely idle existence, and whose subjects were forcibly reduced to slave labour. The rulers interested themselves in the art of war. Their education stressed physical fitness, courage, endurance. Their ingenuity was devoted to the development of new weapons, new military tactics. Since their armies were made up exclusively of physically more powerful males, the role of women was reduced to providing the maximum supply of males to restock decimated armies. The rulers had little interest in the development of labour-saving technologies in farming and industry because their slaves performed this work for them. So technical innovation languished.

Since a larger army would usually defeat a smaller army, larger states subjugated smaller states, and expanded into empires.

This era resulted in a progressive fall in social idleness. Towns and cities became fortified, and garrisoned with militias. This in turn led to the development of siege warfare - catapults, scaling ladders, mines, battering rams. And that in turn led to the improvement of defences, with thick stone walls, moats, ramparts. All of which required increasing amounts of labour, and proportionally larger numbers of slaves. Falling idleness brought inflation, as the real cost of living increased.

While an empire expanded, it could enlarge the numbers of its aristocracy. Once it ceased to expand, or contracted, the numbers of idle rulers that the empire could support began to decrease. Increasingly, aristocrats were reduced to slavery. Civil wars within the aristocracy broke out as factions struggled for supremacy and security.

Ultimately, falling idleness brought the complete collapse of these coercive societies. The dwindling aristocracy became unable to impose its will, or to collect taxes and tributes. If the empires did not fall to external invaders, they disintegrated into a collection of independent smaller states, largely free of coercion. Freed from high taxation and the need for military defence, social idleness rose. Technical innovation to increase idleness, rather than improve weaponry, restarted.

In this way, and in other ways, human society has alternated between an easy, idle life and a life of toil and difficulty. Idleness increased as new techniques and technologies emerged, and decreased as populations rose and wars broke out.

Value Systems

Low Idleness Society.

In a low idleness society, where life is near-continuous toil at the brink of extinction, any mistake or omission threatens the existence of society. Therefore such societies must be highly disciplined, with each member carrying out their tasks with scrupulous care.

  • Strict egalitarianism is required, with everyone working, because such societies cannot support an idle elite.

  • Theft and violence are intolerable, because they reduce social idleness, and threaten the entire society.

  • All products are useful tools. There can be few luxuries, amusements, or diversions, partly because such societies have little free time to spend on them, and partly because such amusements threaten to divert men from necessary work.

  • Sexual conduct must be highly restricted, because runaway population growth brings falling idleness. Complete sexual abstinence acts to reduce the population.

  • Little technical innovation is allowed, partly because there is little time for it, but also because the failure of a social or technological experiment could be fatal.
  • There is a tendency to despair, to lose all hope that life will ever improve. People live for tomorrow. They hurry through life, and see death as a release.
  • Social idleness tends to rise.
  • Men regard themselves as in the grip of powers other than themselves.

These are the ascetic practices of a monastery, and they are the required behaviour of humanity in extremis, and provide the baseline set of human survival values. In that fallen world, none would entertain any hope of a happy and carefree life.

High Idleness Society

Where social idleness increases, discipline can be relaxed. In the most idle society, the world is a playground.

  • Little necessary work needs to be done to sustain life, and therefore life is secure. Strict equality becomes unnecessary.
  • Moral strictures relax. Promiscuous sex is normal. Theft and fraud are commonplace, but do not threaten social security.
  • Most products are luxuries, toys, or diversions, desired for the pleasure of owning them or using them.
  • Experimentation and exploration of every kind flourishes.
  • Laws are regarded as social conventions, the rules of the game. Moral dispute revolves around secondary concerns - dress codes, manners, appearances.
  • There is a tendency to ennui, to boredom, and thrill-seeking. People act not out of necessity, but from impulse. They live for today, not for the future. They dread dying, and want to live forever.
  • Social idleness tends to fall, as essential work is done badly or not at all.
  • Men regard themselves as masters of their own destiny.

Thus social values shift to reflect circumstances. What is right at one time becomes wrong in another. The discipline that serves so well in low idleness society is not an asset when life is a party. Equally the wit and humour and personal charm that are assets in idle society are of little account in low idleness society.

5. European Civilizations.

In antiquity, when human technology developed slowly, the principal way for men to increase their idleness was by enslaving other men, and getting them to do their work. The Roman Empire was a vast system of coercion, extending across the entire Mediterranean basin, whose colonies were taxed to maintain Rome in idleness. After about 100 AD, the empire stopped expanding, and Roman power gradually dwindled until by 500 AD the Western Roman empire had been overrun by migrant tribes of Goths and Vandals, looking for new homelands.

After the collapse of the Western empire, Europe dissolved into a set of small feudal societies, whose peasant farmers paid taxes to local barons in exchange for protection from bandits and invaders. From about 500 AD to 1500 AD, new farming methods, ploughs, watermills, and other innovations appear to have raised social idleness. In the late medieval period, there were some 100 public holidays each year, in addition to the 52 sabbath days.

European innovation and invention produced technologies which surpassed those of other states. One likely reason for this is that in the cold north of the planet, life is much harder than in tropical regions, and idleness-increasing innovation is essential. Tropical humans, in Africa and America, living largely idle lives, had no need for such innovation.

Around 1500 AD, Western Christianity disintegrated, and began to be replaced by a secular humanism, which owed much to Greece and Rome. Emulating Rome, Europe began to use its technical superiority to forge a global empire. The Americas became colonies of Portugal and Spain. Africa was carved up. India became a British colony, as did Australia. When the expansion was nearly complete, and a few European nations controlled most of the world, European civil war shattered this hegemony. The empire broke up into small self-governing nations.

Chris Davis


Dennis said...

It is a very plausible scenario apart from the fact that it is always the same group who have the idleness and the same group who do the work. Masters and Peasants, or their equivalents for the era.
The theory does side-step the introduction of money, which could buy idleness, if the masters could accumulate enough of it by any sort of means they could devise.

caesars wife said...

are you sure your not a communist OH , you still need a great leader , but interesting repost to my earlier question .Ill have a read later to mull it over .

bofl said...

or to put it another way.....

we have many incredible advances like the net,surgery,mobile phones etc but the basic human nature hasnt changed at all....

greed,vanity,ego and in many cases insanity drives us on to more and more horrific acts.

all to be rich or a 'somebody'.

the greeks,romans,william the bastard,napoleon,hitler etc all creating death and misery to pacify their own delusions.

good thing it's all an illusion!

Squitch said...

This is the most egregious psudo-intellectual bullshit. To point out just one of the logical fallacies:

"in the cold north of the planet, life is much harder than in tropical regions, and idleness-increasing innovation is essential".

People have been living in cold areas for thousands of years: the Inuit, Canadian 'Native Americans', Siberian folk, South American 'Natives' in South Argentina, and the mountains of Bolivia, etc. etc. But the lives of those people were no more technological than the lives of people in Somalia, say, or Central Australia. Indeed, they were less so than the lives of the classical civilisation, particularly Roman, who flourished in the sunny Mediterranean lands.

What an utter load of bollocks.

Old Holborn said...


This post should prove I am not a communist. No one was unemployed in communist societies and indeed our good friend Adolf tells us that work is freedom.

It isn't. It's slavery. If a lion could get a cheetah to do it's work for it, it would.

Strange how the very very rich and powerful spend most of their time on luxury yachts doing nothing or playing golf to amuse themselves isn't it?

Cover your needs with skills. Everything else is a luxury you can choose to pay for. Or not.

Where our society fails is that basic needs are covered by the State, which in turn needs someone to pay for it all. YOU.

Old Holborn said...

Squitch mate, who works harder at surviving?

1. an Eskimo
2. A Rasta in Jamaica
3. Yvonne Bentley, a 32 year old accounts clerk, living in Sydenham and raising two small children.

Your move.

Sam Vega said...

A truly absorbing article, situated in that interesting area between stylistic parody (i.e. of the popularised scholarly article) and profound common sense.

It ignores the downside of idleness, however, which is the discomfort of ennui. Those guys playing golf or lounging on their yachts - how happy are they in reality? Their apparent happiness is probably our projected longing to be free from what ails us: overwork and stress. Of course, it could be argued that even seeing a downside is the result of our workaholic conditioning. But feeling no purpose is not really sustainable unless one really knows that there is no purpose. Until we do, there is some kind of work to do, as that work is more comfortable than the anxiety that we might be getting it wrong.

Catflap said...

What about the biggest natural driver of all?
It inspired me to learn how to play an instrument for a start.
With poor results.

Jim. said...

I offer you the thoughts of that cuddly old leftie Bertrand Russel.


Frank Davis said...

Yes, it is fascinating, isn't it, OH?

I've been fascinated with the idea for 35 years.

And Chris Davis, the author of Idle Theory, happens to be one and the same person as Frank Davis, banging on about the smoking ban.

Nice to see some interest in Idle Theory. If anyone's got any questions about it, I'll be happy to try and answer them. And, of course, I don't have all the answers.

Frank (aka Chris) Davis

hunrenti said...

Too long OH. Please keep these long essays for the holidays. Your link today about agriculture was 50odd pages. How the heck are wage slaves to find the time to read that?

Frank Davis said...

Dennis wrote: "The theory does side-step the introduction of money, which could buy idleness"

No, it doesn't sidestep money. I develop a theory of money here, as well as an explanation of profit and interest. It's not a fully developed theory, but it's definitely not sidestepping the issue.

Squitch wrote: "This is the most egregious psudo-intellectual bullshit. To point out just one of the logical fallacies:"

The Innuit have a number of innovations, including igloos, and very finely made leather clothes, without which they couldn't survive. And those are probably the least of their innovations. In many tropical regions, there's little need for either clothing or shelter. So there's less work to be done, and people live idler lives. Or are you really suggesting that life in Greenland is inherently just as easy as life in Tahiti?

Sam Vega wrote: "It ignores the downside of idleness, however, which is the discomfort of ennui."

In Idle Theory somebody's "idleness" is a measure of how little work people need to do to stay alive. They either have to work very hard to survive (zero idleness), or hardly have to work at all (perfect idleness). What they do in their idle time is up to them. They may be 'idle' in the conventional sense of doing nothing. They may also be very 'busy' in the conventional sense of doing lots of things. It's just that in their idle time, people CAN do nothing if they so choose. But they don't have to.

Frank (aka Chris) Davis

Ron Broxted said...

I'm basically too idle to wade through it OH, so in all fairness I cannot give an opinion, only reiterate that I am a lazy and slothful individual. Maybe I will read it tomorrow depending on how warm or cold the ambient temperature is outside. Meanwhile back to watching the Big Brother House....it's not fair I should have been there...breaks down crying...cont page 78.

Anonymous said...

I will have a word with my gaffer later and tell him what you said as I have been telling him for ages he is working me far too hard and as I am really bone idle at heart see what he says.

Idle Fucker said...

Turgid stuff.

Peter Whale said...

Maslow said almost the same but it still does not make society go forward in an evolutionary way. Forced processes always misshape the way forward. The best way is to ignore or fuck up the force. Isn't that what your trying to do?

Lord T said...

political, economic, and ethical problems.

I disagree about the problems called by economic. The issues in economics are all caused by politicians and their (un)ethical issues. Economics is fairly well understood at a basic level. Doesn't need that much progress.

Anonymous said...

Enjoying retirement Mr Haslam? Is your wife still a cleaner at Lloyds Bank?

Anonymous said...

Mr Holborn why do you address Troll as "Ron"? His name is D.G Haslam and he lives in Bedford. Do try and get it right, poor old Rohen accused falsely.

Trotsky said...

"This post should prove I am not a communist. No one was unemployed in communist societies and indeed our good friend Adolf tells us that work is freedom."

OH, you have a misunderstanding of communism, any communist worth his salt will tell you there have not been any communist societies, the societies which have been and still are run by communists are or were only in the transitional stage described by Marx which would ultimately lead to communism. Where supposedly idleness would be a matter of choice.

It was getting to that position which apparently required the total subjugation of all to the state in order to create the basis for a commmunist utopia where there would no longer be a need for state or money or work as people would contribute toward what the society needed through altruism, and technology would have reached a point to support total freedom in life.

Ooh Its A Scorcher said...

"European innovation and invention produced technologies which surpassed those of other states. One likely reason for this is that in the cold north of the planet, life is much harder than in tropical regions, and idleness-increasing innovation is essential. Tropical humans, in Africa and America, living largely idle lives, had no need for such innovation."

Incas, Aztecs, Greeks, Egyptians, Hebrews, Babylonians?

It seems to have gone over the authors head that ALL the first civilizations in every continent were in extremely hot places, and that civilizations in colder areas have lagged behind until around the 16th century, which interestingly coincides with the protestant reformation and its attendant obsession with work.

the beast of clerkenwell said...

Fucking hell!
Hass der bottom fallen out off der Vindmill industry?
I couldnt be arsed writing that much If I were sat all alone in a prison cell
And as to one of your points it was the seperation of the system of production that lead to greater productivity
One man could make 100 nails per day, 5 men could make 1000
Im now off to eat a curry that probably involved the input of hundreds of thousands of people but only cost me £6
The reason that some people are richer than others is the ability to organise
I bet you cut and pasted that article you scoundrel
Should be having a few drinks in town this weekend if you fancy coming R
Some chaps that you have already met

Chris said...

Meh. It's alright. But dirty old Robert Heinlein expressed it first and better:

"All human progress is the result of an intelligent man deciding there has to be an easier way to do this. Necessity is the mother of Invention; Laziness the father."

Old Holborn said...


Email me


caesars wife said...

Disagree on primary assumption that society is invented , farming was done too early on and it doesnt take account of huge maternal time humans take in bringing up children . There are times when you see a matriacrhal society through the guff , but clearly genetic survival does have some organisation , seeminly related to intelligence .

However tools bit is more interesting and I think it could be termed ecnomics .I perhaps think money has become the evil dcitator of ecnomics .As ever there are a number of factors and which end of the telescope you use .

If you look at it like you do , you should run your own economy as free as possible of state control (which I like) if you loo at it the other way allocating resources by organisating state control .

war useually has a corruption or oppression at its base (useually caused by state control) .

Idleness is perhaps in the mind and has been greatly encouraged under Labour , your right on that one , weve been turned into state puppies and lost a lot of our inventiveness and drive to enjoy work by the labours of our hands and therefore enjoy any rest we have . I am carefull to say the Labour propoganda may make people scared or hopeless which probebely has the same result .

No point in ending up in whipping dumb animals , first they should be given the oppertunity and message to be less dumb and hopefully have some work to earn a living from .

Anonymous said...

Too many words. What was it about?

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