Review: Whatever Happened to the Leisure Society?

If I’d been undertaking this blog as a serious academic exercise, I really ought to have read Anthony Veal’s Whatever Happened to the Leisure Society? (2019) before I started. Veal guides his readers through an enormous wealth of literature on shorter working hours and the uses of free time going back to the start of the twentieth century or so, leaving this blog looking rather puny and superficial by comparison.

The book’s title refers to an apparent lack of interest in the “leisure society” amongst “leisure studies” scholars since the hey-day of the leisure society as a popular idea in the 1960s and 1970s. Veal wants his leisure studies colleagues to get back to it, and prepared the book as a guide for those wanting to familiarise themselves with the history of serious thought about leisure.

For me, the most interesting aspect of Veal’s collection is the wide variety of opinion on what a “leisure society” might be and whether or not such a society might be a good one. Writing Science Fiction and the Economics of Utopia, and in much of the thinking I’ve done since then, I’ve taken it more or less for granted that nearly everyone would prefer to have more free time than less, even while I recognised that the present constitution of industrialised societies makes the creation of work sound like a good and necessary thing, and even saw the occassional attraction in being told what to do.

Some scholars point out that, in some senses, developed countries might already be considered leisure societies, compared to the situation of nineteenth-century factory workers with long hours, no weekends, and no leave. Of course that doesn’t preclude citizens of said societies seeking an even better society if it can be had—Joffre Dumazadier, well-known in the leisure studies field for his work in the 1960s and 1970s, looked forward to a whole “leisure civilisation” that I imagine might look something like Iain Banks’ Culture milieu—but it does remind us of how much has already been achieved and how much might remain to be achieved for those in less-developed countries.

Others point out that “leisure societies within a society” already exist (or have existed) in the form of aristocracies made up of elites who do not need to work for their income and (more recently) retirees who live off superannuation or state pensions. People like me, who can afford to work short hours thanks to a high rate of pay and low costs, might be considered our own “society within a society” though Veal doesn’t say much about this particular group.

In fact, one of the criticisms of a leisure society (and, indeed, the localism that I wrote about in my previous entry) is that it’s only available to the wealthy, both in the sense of wealthy elites within developed countries, and in the sense of developed countries when compared to less-developed ones. This might well be true, given the present state of affairs in which some people and countries have vastly higher incomes than others, but this doesn’t by itself prohibit working towards a more inclusive sort of leisure society.

Veal himself considers a leisure society desirable, and sets out some relatively modest proposals for moving towards one in the last chapter of the book. One of his most encouraging observations is that neither the utopians who thought that a leisure society would come about more or less automatically as productivity increased, nor dystopians and Marxists who thought that workers would be forever at the mercy of the capitalist system, seem to be correct. Against the latter, progress has clearly been made since the nineteenth century without the need for any sort of revolution; but against the former, this progress required hard work and deliberate action from trade unions and sympathetic governments.

I probably won’t get around to reading all of the books and articles that Veal mentions; even for someone with a lot of time there’s rather a lot of them, and many are no doubt quite out of date. But I nonetheless know a little more about the leisure society now than I did before.

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