The Compulsion to Eke Out a Livelihood

Even after three industrial revolutions the great majority of people still find themselves compelled either to lead a completely precarious existence in material indigence or psychical distress or, alternatively, to put themselves through around a decade of drudgery in school and university in order to acquire the privilege of subjecting themselves to another four decades of drudgery at an office desk. To impose on someone this lifetime of drudgery which needs, moreover, to be performed in accordance with that further, almost universally deplored imposition of punctuality – a drudgery which everyone dreams of escaping by flight into some imagined never-ending weekend – is a neganthropem which parents-to-be attempt to block out with the wishful thought that their child, in contrast to all others, will surely be a genius and will thus find himself dispensed from the drudgery imposed upon the millions. But whoever turns out to be in fact not so dispensed will find himself compelled to betake himself, already as a young man, to one of those institutions legally established to the end not of self-realization but rather of self-derealization and of the undermining of human dignity: namely, factories, offices, building sites or “temples of commerce”, which leave their marks on the faces, bodies and minds of those who are employed in them. There is hardly anything that human beings toil at their lives long as hard as they do at the work that is their livelihood and at the education that prepares them for it – both things that are heteronomously imposed upon them by those actions of others which bring it about that they begin to exist.[1]

The newborn child who first sees the light of our industrialized world almost certainly does so in an environment which is filled, early every morning, with the ringing of alarm clocks, appointed to ensure that the sleepers they awaken arrive at the proper hour for artificially illuminated study in their schools or to put in their shifts at their places of employment, with the exception of those who work the night shift or who are “unemployed” and therefore, according to the generally predominant notion, simply surplus to requirements in this world.  The counter-argument – namely, that one should be happy to be able to sustain one’s own life, and/or the lives of others, by the work of one’s own hands and to have learned all the skills that are required to do this – does not hold water, inasmuch as the beginning of our existence was not something that merely inhered in the nature of things but was rather an event that depended upon the actions or omissions of human beings. 


Rousseau (1712–1778)

We find in the following formulation of Rousseau’s a condemnation of all procreation in view of the compulsion to eke out a livelihood:  

„How swiftly life passes here below! The first quarter of it is gone before we know how to use it; the last quarter finds us incapable of enjoying life. At first we do not know how to live; and when we know how to live it is too late. In the interval between these two useless extremes we waste three-fourths of our time sleeping, working, sorrowing, enduring restraint and every kind of suffering.“ (Emile, or Education. Translated by Barbara Foxley, M.A. (London & Toronto: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1921; New York: E.P. Dutton, 1921, p. 172))

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