Action

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology at Middlesex University. His latest book Penal Abolitionism is published by Oxford University Press.

Slowly grasping for less

Inaction, sloth, inertia – and specifically Oblomovism, as superbly incarnated in the novel by Ivan Goncharov – is both seductive and worthy of praise. Faced with the question "to be or not to be?" Oblomov would answer "no". He is incapable of making important decisions or undertaking any significant actions.

The son of an upper-middle-class member of Russia's landed gentry, Oblomov raises lassitude and apathy to an artform; he conducts his daily business from his bed, and when he glances at his slippers is horrified at the effort required to extend his feet in their direction. If he calls his servant, who arrives panting in his bedroom, he forgets why he called him. And after shouting "return to your room until I have remembered", he concludes that oblivion – referred to as his business, and the only reason he needs a servant at all – is preferable. His fiancé Olga calls off their engagement because she predicts that Oblomov will retire to bed every night with a sigh of thankfulness that the day has passed so quickly; and each morning will awaken with a prayer that today might be exactly like yesterday. His ideal wife is big-hearted Agafia, who prepares succulent meals and attempts to dispel all worrisome thought.

According to conventional interpretations, Oblomov personifies the ineptitude and uselessness of landowners in pre-industrial societies, where innovation and enterprise were discouraged. Even Lenin read the novel in this way, detecting a critique of the tsarist system in it; in his invective he promised that the Oblomovs still remaining in Russia after three revolutions would be "washed, cleaned, pulled about and flogged for a long time before any kind of sense will emerge".

The novel is deemed a story of non-events, of physical and mental immobility, which are rendered subtly morbid by the slow, obsessive rhythm of the narrative. The main character, chained as he is to inaction and engulfed in a spiritual paralysis, is deemed the emblem of a tragic and fascinating aspect of the Russian spirit, namely the reluctance to accept the throb of reality. Such reluctance is supposedly rooted in Oriental fatalism and in the typically Asian exaltation of the primacy of contemplation over action.

But Oblomovism has fresh resonance due to its philosophical proximity to radical criticism of contemporary economics; in particular the current of thought focusing on the concept of degrowth: a kind of atheist response to the religion of incessant development, a realistic reminder that infinite growth is incompatible with a finite planet. As Serge Latouche has argued, only a tenacious and irrational faith in progress may explain why economists continue to ignore such reasonable observations.

Oblomov, therefore, can be interpreted as a forerunner of anti-productivism, of the Situationist critique of the concept of development and the sanctity of labour. Far from being a useless human being, he senses that by devoting his time to economic action he might only produce useless products and worthless wealth. Like Raoul Vaneigem, he also seems to anticipate that his own social class will soon be overtaken by a new hectically productive class, a group of blind innovators who will attempt to inscribe the laws of economic behaviour on those of nature. Philosophers and early economists are jointly engaged in this effort, aiming to align physics, morality, nature and economics in a harmonic whole. Quesnay, for instance, associates the natural order with the fundamental rules of competition, self-love, individual interest, even greed, without which in his view societies would collapse. Homo oeconomicus, in this perspective, is a universal, ahistorical figure, like all other elements of divine creation.

Leibniz completes the picture by connecting moral and physical laws to the natural development of material life, all tailored to achieve grace, with God as the supreme architect of a universal machine. Oblomov's inaction challenges this harmonic whole, while the neglect of personal business interests proves that grace might be reached otherwise, through rest, contemplation and good food. Oblomov's refusal of action is a profanation of the sanctity of work, which is deemed to favour emancipation even when it resembles a prison sentence.

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