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The Right to Be Playful

This Labor Day, let’s celebrate our human right to be joyous and playful.

Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress

This Labor Day, let’s celebrate “the right to be lazy.”

Let’s look to Paul Lafargue, whose short book bearing that phrase, written from a French prison in 1883, argues that workers have been bamboozled by the church, the bourgeoisie, and politicians to believe that their back-breaking labor is virtuous and unavoidable. It’s a conviction that is literally killing them and civilization.

Lafargue denounces capitalism’s values as a “pitiful parody on Christian ethics.” Capitalists strive to suppress the worker’s “joys and his passions and to condemn him to play the part of a machine turning out work without respite and without thanks.”

Education’s role in suppressing the desire for pleasure is clear to Lafargue, who opens his book with a critique of an 1849 French commission on primary education. He understood that capitalism’s ethos must be taught.

This has hardly changed since Lafargue’s day. While mass public education has always been expected to prepare the next generation of workers, in capitalist democracies it was also assumed to inculcate political responsibilities in citizens. The two functions often conflicted, but in the present we see that tension erased by measures aiming to reduce schooling to preparation for unemployment, work without voice, and prison.

Teachers all over the world see this impoverishment of education and play, and are battling governments, powerful elites, and their own unions to advance a different vision of education. One of the most contentious skirmishes is over the Common Core, a set of national standards intended to make even four-year-olds “college and career ready.” Enforced by standardized tests, the standards squeeze play and pleasure out of early childhood education.

Early childhood teachers, almost exclusively women and a group not previously known for their workplace militancy, have been roused by the Common Core and the proliferation of high-stakes testing. Perhaps without realizing it, their agitation draws on Lafargue’s idea about the “right to be lazy” — at least until third grade. (As in so much, the Chicago Teachers Union has led the way among US teachers unions with its statement opposing the Common Core.)

What of the proletariat, which has not yet rejected the work ethic that Lafargue argues is the basis of social ills? Lafargue would concur with Kim Moody’s early reading of neoliberalism that in its drive to make workers in every society interchangeable, capitalism has created the conditions for the emergence of a new international working class. The challenges we face are challenges of political ideas and leadership, and in teachers unions, at least, a new generation is emerging that understands the importance of international solidarity, fighting for the dignity of the profession, and struggling for social justice.

If we just add “play” to that list, I think Lafargue would approve, as well. Early childhood educators often defend time for play in the school day by saying that play is children’s work, and much empirical research corroborates this: play lays a cognitive and social groundwork that schooling later taps.

But like Lafargue, I’d rather defend play for play’s sake, for all of us. This Labor Day, let’s dream and imagine a world without alienated labor. And let’s celebrate our human right, children and adul/ts alike, to be joyous, to play, and remember that workers have to fight like never before to make it an experience we all can enjoy.