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The Right To Be Lazy Must Be Earned—On Stephan Lessenich and productivity

Jasmin Singh 1 December 2015

We are a society obsessed with productivity, results and performance. Alongside the enormous pressure to work for longer and harder, social inequality has increased. Depression and other mental health issues have reached record highs at a time that we are more interested in measuring happiness than ever.

Has the time come for society to radically reduce working hours and claim our 'right to be lazy'?

The sociologist Stephan Lessenich, co-author of Sociology, Capitalism and Critique and co-director of the German Research Foundation group “Post-Growth Societies”, argues “it is absolutely necessary to articulate a demand that goes against the dominant trend of our times.” Christian Funke examines Lessenich's bold demands. 

“Too wealthy, too fashionable, too saturated!” Stereotypes such as these were precisely what Stephan Lessenich, 49, had in mind when first offered his current position at the Ludwig-Maximalians-Universität in Munich. “You're going to Munich? You won't fit in there”  was the response of his University of Jena colleagues upon hearing of his impending departure. But he left for Munich nevertheless, and nine months later is now serving as the chair of sociology at the LMU. Since moving, he has concluded that “Munich is not as homogeneous as it may appear from the outside.” There are interesting social circles and subcultures, albeit not as large nor as diverse as in Berlin. But he likes the city on the Isar. He also likes his office in an old tenement in the heart of Schwabing, which he took over from his predecessor, sociologist Ulrich Beck who passed away on 1 January 2015. Lessenich's most important piece of office furniture is an armchair he inherited from his grandmother. It is an excellent piece to lounge around on, though Lessenich rarely finds time for that, despite being a prominent proponent of the “Right to be Lazy”. This appeal to laziness is not new; it was first developed by Karl Marx's son-in-law Paul Lafargue in a polemic at the end of the 19th century. He argued that three hours of labour a day were sufficient. Lessenich concurs, propagating the notion of a “radical reduction in working hours”.

Everyone must perform

Lessenich writes that “the right to be lazy must be earned” in his preface to a new edition of Lafargue's classic polemic, re-published in 2014. But is such a demand plausible in this day and age? “It is not only possible but absolutely necessary to articulate a demand that goes against the dominant trend of our times,” he says. Society has been going through a period of “severe productivism” for the last ten to 15 years. In Lessenich's sociological jargon, this means that society has aimed to siphon off the productive resources of individuals as extensively as possible. Even the “newly aged” (that is, the elderly) are “discovered as a resource still capable of performing”, whose efforts are to be socially exploited, particularly if they could potentially contribute to further growth. In a society “so driven by performance, bottom lines and value creation”, Lafargue's pithy demand for a right to be lazy takes on particular importance.

“We produce more every quarter, and yet social inequality has greatly increased, particularly in the last ten years”, explains Lessenich. The greater social inequality becomes, the more intense social pressure to extend one's working hours becomes as well. Ultimately, everyone measures themselves against their neighbour. If they own more, one wants to catch up to them.

In addition to his professorship at the LMU, Lessenich is also the chair of the German Sociological Association – so much for the right to be lazy. Lessenich rarely works less than sixty hours in a week, which illustrates the dilemma rather aptly: namely, how to chart a path out of the ongoing spiral of economic growth and increasing labour? The sociologist replies: “Individual action is usually doomed to fail”. Such a change will only be possible through collective commitments to give up some things. Sceptics may accuse him of social romanticism, but Lessenich is not having it. “Dream on!” was often the response to earlier social demands, such as the abolishment of child labour or the introduction of state-sponsored pension plans. Yet Lessenich – one of the most high-profile critical welfare state scholars in existence – counters that both of these “have long since become reality”.

Change is desperately needed

Lessenich is sure that he will live to see a change in the growth societies – a change that he regards as desperately needed, primarily because of the fact that the wealthy industrialised nations enjoy their prosperity at the expense of others. He speaks of an “externalisation society” in which we shift the burden of our problems onto those we exploit. “Next to us, the deluge”, as he once formulated it in an article for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Lessenich argues that “our privileged position” in the world is connected to the fact that others are not so privileged, to the fact “that we out-compete and marginalise them”.

Lessenich wants to make us more aware of the fact that “the solution will not be for everyone to live like us some day”. Rather, ways of life will have to be changed here as well, so that prosperity can increase elsewhere. How to realise this change? The sociologist recommends redistribution from “above” to “below”, progressive taxation, changes to inheritance law and gradual increases in the minimum wage and basic security.

As a standard bearer for justice, known for singing the praises of equality, the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods commonly seen in Munich must annoy him. “Yes, absolutely”, he answers. He lives in a shared flat in Schwabing and conducts a 5:2 relationship with his partner, an academic at the University of Jena. It is not uncommon for him to see “someone in a stylish Ralph Lauren outfit chatting on their phone and leaning on a Porsche Cayenne or a Cabrio” while popping over to the bakery for a cup of coffee.

Lessenich prefers the casual look himself. The man with the receding hairline wears jeans, a white t-shirt and shoes that look like he has owned them for quite a while. He amusedly speaks of bets being made at the university as to when he will adapt his outfit to LMU standards. “The danger that I will assimilate myself is relatively marginal”, he says.

Academic career as Plan B

Lessenich has German university admissions to thank for his career. Born in Stuttgart, Lessenich was raised in Spain. He completed his Abitur (A-levels) in Barcelona and originally sought to be an architect, but he was rejected by every German university he applied to. Already interested in politics, he chose to study political science, sociology and history at the University of Marburg instead. He soon concluded that sociology interested him the most. After completing his doctorate in Bremen and his postdoctoral qualification in Göttingen, he spent ten years as a professor of sociology at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena, before taking over the LMU's sociology chair in the fall of 2014.

Lessenich demonstrated his ability to turn things on their head as soon as he moved into his predecessor Ulrich Beck's office. He found the dark brown furniture that was left behind “oppressive” and replaced them with white shelves, tables and green felt chairs – his favourite colour. On his desk stands a model of the red and white-striped rocket from The Adventures of Tintin, ready for take off from the serious world of research and scholarship into more humorous spheres. Lessenich appreciates the “airy, lively and warm” atmosphere in his new office.

His office is not the only thing that connects him to Ulrich Beck - they also shared many similar ideas. He met the author of the best-selling book Risk Society in Munich many times, including at his 70th birthday shortly before his death. Lessenich noticed many over-lapping interests between Beck and himself, particularly concerning climate change. They also shared a similar understanding of sociology as a “practical and critical science”, as well as an intention “to remain close to society, and not to engage in petty academic games.”

Attending Oktoberfest as a sociologist

Lessenich takes the questions he encounters in everyday life seriously. He analyses how attitudes towards the elderly or discussions about equality for homosexuals have shifted in the past years. He is of course also concerned with the situation of refugees both worldwide and in Munich itself. Their suffering has historical relations to our prosperity, to colonisation and to the world trade regime erected by the northern industrialised states, which he considers to be unjust. “Refugees are the chickens coming home to roost”, he says. He is convinced that his research will be able to effect change. But he is not satisfied with merely identifying undesirable social developments, he is also politically engaged: in the scientific advisory committee of Attac, for example, or in the “Bellevue di Monaco” cooperative, which fights for the protection of asylum seekers and is seeking to use the city-owned buildings in Müllerstraße 2, 4 and 6 for subsidised housing and cultural events.

It seems unlikely that the man who argues for more idleness will be following his own advice any time soon. In the free time he does have, however, he enjoys taking his son to SV Werder Bremen games. Or perhaps a visit to the Café Baader, his favourite spot in his new adoptive home. And what about a trip to the Oktoberfest? He grins: “To be honest I am not too crazy about the idea, but as a sociologist I am of course obligated to attend, purely for the sake of observation.” And by observation he does not mean standing in the corner, but rather mixing in with the people. If necessary he would even consider standing up on the beer benches, “should it serve the pursuit of truth”. Even a Mass is part of the plan. “Beer, when enjoyed by the Mass, sharpens the sociological spirit of observation.”

The below piece was originally published on Süddeutsche Zeitung and has been translated by Loren Balhorn.  Stephan Lessenich is the co-author of Sociology, Capitalism and Critique currently 50% off on our site until the end of the year, with free shipping worldwide and bundled ebook.