Socialism and the right to daydream

By Billy Wharton

August 31, 2010 -- A recent study featured in the Los Angeles Times suggests that daydreaming or other such unstructured mental activities might play a key role in mental well being. Unknowingly, this study promotes a prime potential of a democratic socialist society – the right to free time. While capitalism, especially in its current neoliberal incarnation, stresses never-ending productivity, a human-centred socialist system would allow for more free time.

Studies have apparently demonstrated that unstructured thought allows the human brain to develop its default mode network. Daydreaming, for instance, is not an escape from brain activity, but a productive working out of society’s complex social rules that allows the brain to function more efficiently in normal mode. Conversely, tasks that require strict attention tend to use one part of the brain at the expense of the default mode.

Just as sleep allows the brain to regenerate, time for unstructured thought offers the opportunity for the human brain to untangle the complexities of everyday life. The discovery of the importance of the default mode network raises question about brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s that result in the loss of memory and, eventually, one’s sense of self.

Scientists will have to work out the implications of this study in regards to brain disease, but it does raise an important immediate issue. Human beings need free time to think. Quite a problem for capitalism since every non-productive moment for a worker is a little less profit for an employer. This is even worse news for workers in the US who rank sixth in a global poll measuring the most hours worked. An average US worker spends about 1776 hours at work, while Dutch workers operate at the relatively leisurely pace of 1288 per year (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

Socialists have, in the past, tended to focus on free time as a moral issue or to make arguments that rested workers are actually more productive. Now, the scientific evidence is in and it is clear that worker’s mental health may be at stake in the struggle for free time. Only socialism, a political project that puts human development at the centre of society, can honestly take up this demand.

As the great dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson sings, “We need more time for leisure, more time for pleasure, more time for edification, more time for recreation…we need more time.” Socialism can be the struggle for unstructured mental time – for the purpose of improving mental health and encouraging those flashes of brilliance that come from minds that are able to wander.

[Billy Wharton is the editor of the Socialist Party USA's Socialist WebZine, where this article appeared.]

The idea that unstructured daydreaming might be good for your health has interesting implications for the modern consumer leisure ideal: every waking non-working hour one is to consume leisure products - principally through the media: music, radio, TV, internet. And of course eating, drinking, sporting activities and so on.

Radio is also present at many workplaces. It can provide some relief from boredom and a sense of company listening to the chatter and music. It also crowds out the kind of thinking (not really reducible to "daydreaming" I think) that Billy Wharton is talking about. I am no scientist but I wouldn't be surprised if there were links to many modern disorders like depression, ADHD, etc.

TV is a modern substitute for the ancient passtime of sitting around the fire in the evening - talking, partying or just staring into the flames. But it's mostly an inferior substitute!