In George Saunders’ 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo, Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie has died and exists in a sort of purgatory alongside the souls of others who, like Willie, do not know or cannot admit that they are dead. The story culminates with Willie’s realization, having witnessed his own funeral and his father’s life-altering grief, that he has died. His brave refusal to hide from that fact ultimately sets him and all the other souls in limbo free.
You are not sick, [Willie] said.
Stop talking, Mr. Vollman said. You will kindly stop talking at once.
There is a name for what ails us, [Willie] said. Do you not know it? Do you really not know it? …Dead, the boy said. Everyone, we are dead!”
In the world of Willie Lincoln and the other tortured souls conjured by Saunders, it is only by recognizing and naming their condition that they can free themselves. If they can’t name what ails them, they will be stuck in an eternal, hopeless present.
For many workers under capitalism, the problem is the same. We lack the name for what ails us, believing ourselves temporarily stuck instead of perpetually exploited. Without being able to name and confront what ails us, we lack the first fundamental tool for freeing ourselves. Attempts to explain this problem to people have filled libraries’ worth of Marxist texts and serve as the raison d’être for publications like this one. Where you’d be less likely to find any such explanation is the self-help section of your local bookstore.
That has changed with Laziness Does Not Exist, in which social psychologist Dr Devon Price seeks to explain to readers that their exhaustion, their feelings of inadequacy, and their lack of joy in their work are not born of their own moral failings, but are the inevitable consequences of living and working under capitalism. Self-help books, as a rule, exist to preach to readers that they can and should be doing more: more work, more exercise, more self-care, more self-advocacy. Our lives can be transformed, these books tell us, by making better individual choices.
Price takes a different approach, positing that the entire logic of self-help is backward. We aren’t miserable because we aren’t working hard enough at happiness, we’re miserable because we’re all working too hard at everything. What’s more, no one seems to believe it, including ourselves.
Price focuses specifically on one aspect of this phenomenon, what they call the “Laziness Lie.” According to Price, the Laziness Lie has three central tenets: our worth is our productivity, we cannot trust our own feelings and limits, and there is always more we could be doing.
We internalize this logic to such a degree that we learn to believe that “our skills and talents don’t really belong to us; they exist to be used. If we don’t gladly give our time, our talents, and even our lives to others, we aren’t heroic or good.” And we’re certainly more fireable.
The Birth of “Laziness”
Where does this belief system come from? Price (who, full disclosure, I have corresponded with about the ideas in the book over the years with but never met) traces the Laziness Lie across American history, unpacking its roots in the Christianity of the country’s settlers and its utility in rationalizing slavery, indentured servitude, and child labor. By the time of the industrial revolution, Price writes, “Laziness had officially become not only a personal failing but a social ill to be defeated — and it has remained that way ever since.”
It seems fitting that the United States just inaugurated a president who campaigned in part on the idea that millennials deserve no empathy for their generation’s immiseration, and who shut down a pointed political question from a town hall attendee by challenging him to a pushup contest. Obviously, the idea that struggling people deserve no sympathy is bullshit. That our new president scoffs at the people ruined by a debt crisis he helped engineer over a long, pro-banking Senate career is just extra cruelty sprinkled on top. But even the savviest Biden-hating socialist is not immune to the ways these attitudes seep into our lives and our attitudes toward ourselves and others.
Capitalism demands that we function in a constant state of “speed up” at work, needing to cram ever more into the waking hours of our days regardless of our actual efficiency or productivity. What Price calls the “Laziness Lie” is really this demand for “speed up” taken to its inevitable extreme, such that it permeates all aspects of one’s life on or off the clock.
We repeat and reify the logic of our bosses in our own lives through social media and other avenues where the “hustle” is expected to be never-ending, even at home. Influencer culture, in Price’s view, has amplified the “Laziness Lie”: our meals must be Instagram-worthy, our living spaces minimalist and tidy, our bodies well-toned and well-dressed. As a result we treat fatness, tackiness, nonconformity, and other seeming imperfections as contemptible rather than default states of being.
Perversely, this phenomenon can even absorb its apparent opposite. No influencer’s Instagram grid is complete without a smattering of confessional posts. Look y’all, today was a hard day, I’m blessed by this life but it’s not as glamorous as it seems. Just gotta keep smiling… These humanizing offerings don’t dismantle the logic of hustle culture, they reinforce it — because the implicit conclusion to each of them is …and I’m still getting up and doing it every day, so why aren’t you?
The ceaseless demands put upon us by our own belief in this pernicious myth — and the attendant expectations of being an open and available friend, a politically and socially conscious member of society, a generous and committed romantic partner, and so forth — combine to put a crushing weight on just about everyone who works for a living.
Price relates anecdotes and data about the ways that particular populations, such as people with mental illnesses, are compoundingly harmed by our societal contempt for laziness. But their analysis also includes the harm done to those with no particularly remarkable barriers who still don’t rise to the occasion as students or employees or voters. In other words, the laziness myth hurts the vast majority of us.
Laziness Is Fake, Disenfranchisement Is Real
It is disenfranchisement, not laziness, Price argues, that makes even relatively healthy people step back from challenges and check out from the world. If we don’t see the point of our schoolwork or any meaning in the jobs we’ve considered applying to, we’re not likely to complete those tasks.
If we don’t vote even when shamed by others about doing our civic duty, we’re not too lazy to bother, we probably had to work that day and didn’t have the energy to go stand in line at the polls for a few extra hours (to say nothing of the pitiful options on offer, though Price doesn’t mention that).
On top of all this, most other people we know are going through some version of these problems, too, meaning that the exhausting demands on our time don’t end when our professional or academic obligations do. We need help, and so do our friends and family, and we’re all using each other for it.
A more explicitly socialist text would probably unpack these same phenomena as products of capitalist alienation, not just a general form of disenfranchisement. But Price has not leaned on the most obvious layers of the working class to make the bulk of their argument (though retail workers, health care workers, and bartenders do appear in their interviews).
Instead we get a diverse cross-section of people whose time is not their own, from people experiencing homelessness to overwhelmed grad students to semi-professional streamers to working moms still wondering if they can “have it all.”
While the stories and conditions vary, a single thread runs through them all: no one has really escaped the self-loathing and other harmful behaviors we have absorbed as we try to work and survive in a capitalist society. Price correctly describes the normalization of overwork as a public health crisis, and their interviews bear out this diagnosis — marriages, bright futures, and, in the case of one memorable interviewee who was so overworked that he began vomiting blood, internal organs all get damaged by workers’ inability to say no to the demands of a capitalist society.
In this regard, Laziness is something like a fox in the henhouse: Price tells readers that we are not alone in feeling profoundly ill-used and sick because of the demands of our economy and culture, and makes their radical arguments broadly appealing by casting such a wide net in their interview pool. (It also doesn’t hurt that the book’s title is ambiguous enough to disguise its intent. Were your boss to see you reading it, she might think you a particularly motivated employee looking for tips on how to quit slacking.)
Collective Action, Not “Self-Help”
This trick of Laziness — to exist as an anti-capitalist manifesto posing as a self-help book — gives Price a tough needle to thread. Self-help books are by nature dedicated to improving, well, the self. But the full-scale societal transformation required to liberate the overworked world from capitalism can only come through sustained, organized mass action.
Price is clearly aware of this contradiction, as one of the book’s currents is that precious few individuals are capable of maintaining anything resembling a decent life under the demands of capitalism, much less saving the world.
This is not a book designed to teach downtrodden Americans how to throw off the yoke of their exploiters, though Price does repeatedly plug collective workplace action and unionization as tools. Rather, Laziness Does Not Exist tells its readers, perhaps for the first time in their lives, that they are being exploited, and there is a name for what ails them: capitalism. And while the book’s prescriptions for dismantling entire systems are thin, it is a useful compendium of anecdotes, insights, and data that might help more people survive under those systems.
“Sometimes,” Price opines, “the best thing good people can do is hunker down, care for one another, and survive.” Plain survival is not enough to change the world. But changing the world requires that masses of people understand their conditions more fully and have the time and energy to fight.
This is a drastic departure from the usual offerings in the self-help section, which often start in the same place — What you feel about your situation is okay to feel — but head in the opposite direction — and here’s how to push past those feelings to go produce, earn, and do more!
Self-help doesn’t just perpetuate capitalist ideology by peddling the myth that every individual is capable of and responsible for changing their own conditions. It does so by insisting that our very human desire to live for something other than work is simply a challenge to be overcome.
Contrast Price’s book with two recent self-help bestsellers by Rachel Hollis, Girl, Wash Your Face and Girl, Stop Apologizing, in which the author “encourages, entertains, and even kicks a little butt, all to convince you to do whatever it takes to get real… Because you really can live with passion and hustle.”
She “identifies the excuses to let go of, the behaviors to adopt, and the skills to acquire on the path to growth, confidence, and believing in yourself.” Hollis isn’t teaching her readers that their feelings and experiences matter simply because they are human beings with emotional needs, but that they matter because they can be catalogued for use or disposal in service of one’s ambition.
The ultimate irony of Laziness is that it could actually be a useful tool for employers, as it contains reams of research on the ways that making people work less actually makes them work better — if not on their boss’s terms, at least on workers’ own. Abolishing overwork and other abusive practices might increase many companies’ productivity, and certainly employee longevity.
But overwork is not just about profit or productivity, it’s about control. Companies are incentivized to own as much of an employee’s time as possible for what they’re paid, whether by extending the salaried work week into nights and weekends or reducing the break time of hourly wage-earners.
Laziness Does Not Exist is the rare self-help book that understands the basic truth that the majority of our problems are not of our individual making, and therefore cannot be solved individually. Accordingly, Price does not promise tools for salvation, but tools for survival, and permission to forgive oneself for not being able to change the world alone.
There can be no real “self-help” without collective work to understand and dismantle the system under which we all labor. Like Lincoln in the Bardo’s dead, we must be able to name what ails us before we can get free. It’s capitalism, not laziness.